Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dayavan: what went wrong?


"Why isn't this working?" I thought to myself, as I pressed play on Dayavan on attempt #4 to finish it. It wasn't so awful that I gave up entirely, but now that it's over, I'm frustrated that it raised some thought-provoking (if, er, "classic") questions without doing anything very interesting with them. Principally, I think (though am not absolutely certain) the film says that it's perfectly okay to be a lawless vigilante thug if you've been abused by the system. That's not my personal code; worse, it just makes the already bleak world of this film even more distressing and dangerous, and the only person who seems to question the dangerous choices is the person who suffers most.

Shakti Velu/Dayavan (Vinod Khanna) thinks his life was thrown off the standard moral grid when he was still a child, when he is first lied to, then betrayed, then made an orphan by some fantastically awful police officers. All alone in the world, he somehow arrives in Mumbai,* where most figures with any power are just as bad as the cops who killed his father and the pitiable poor are screwed by those with more money who can pay to have the rules bend their way.

You know what, Shakti Velu? Of course you did. I think you are unwilling - maybe even psychologically unable - to take responsibility for being a better adult than the truly evil people who made your childhood truly horrible. Rise above it, man! Shakti Velu isn't heartless, and the film shows him in not only Robin Hood-esque deeds of uplifting his community (providing ambulances specifically for the poor, organizing prayer ceremonies) but also small, private acts of carding and kindness.

But even some of those are far from pure, like acting as an older male authority figure to a boy who is fatherless...because he killed his father. Oof. Though very powerful in word and action, even as the de facto community organizer, advocate, and judge,

In full-on godfather mode, rings and all.
Shakti Velu came off to me as childlike. He is capable of genuine affection but also extreme violence, and he seems unable to change his own worldview even though he suffers great loss because of it.

His lifestyle is full of huge risks, and he suffers from them as often as not - yet he never seems to make the connection between those decisions and the episodes of pain and loneliness they cause. For a visual, this is the expression Vinod Khanna makes most often in this film.

You know what, Dayavan? Your way of living endangers everyone you love. So why don't you stop?

This is the explanation given for major tragedies with no discussion (that I caught, anyway) of the dangerous and illegal lifestyles these people lead. In the scene above, someone has just died in a car accident while they flee the police after arranging a murder; I don't really see how that's God's doing and not a fairly reasonable potential outcome of his decision to murder somebody in broad daylight in a crowded city.

That, I think, is the major downfall of this story. I don't require every film to have a nice shiny moral bow at the end, but I also appreciate writing that lets characters learn, grown, think. Dayavan has very little scope for that, and I am curious if Mani Ratman's Tamil original Nayakan addresses these issues more thoroughly.

I also wonder if Dayavan's relentless adherence to his own ethical code is possible only because of the constant companionship of his adopted brother, Shankar (Feroz Khan).

Shankar is even more uncritical than Shakti; when Shakti's daughter Sarita (Amala) wonders why he has beaten up the local politician's rapist son, he replies "I did as he asked me to. I can't differentiate between the right and the wrong." OMG. That is what responsible people do, Shankar.

So what about the fruits of yours?
This would have been so much more interesting if Shakti had an ethical or intellectual foil. Sarita voices a lot of the criticisms one can make of Shakti's world,

but very little is made of the ideas she raises. Instead, Shakti and Shankar soldier on, destroying whoever opposes them with apparently no thought about what consequences might arise. It is worth noting that Shakti never loses his most core emotional support and connection (his relationship with Shankar) even when their actions have a significant body count for the other people in Shakti's life. It's almost just the two of them against the world. I also think it's interesting that Shakti's wife does not survive the film, as though there is no room at the center of Shakti's emotional core for anyone other than Shankar. Nobody does bromance like the rough-love brodi of Vinod and Feroz.

Yep, that's Feroz and Vinod, splashing around in the ocean and rolling around on the ground during a Holi song. Awww!

A few words of praise for Dayavan. After an extremely harsh beginning, the first few episodes in Shakti's life show a little more inner conflict than later ones. His romance with student/prostitute Neela (a very young-looking and mild-mannered Madhuri Dixit)

is sweet but also puzzling - I'm not sure why exactly he falls for her, and his grim expression through their initial meetings made me wonder if he was remotely happy in her presence, but it gets cuter once they're married. From her end, I get it. She lives in a world in which a man who takes a few seconds to learn something about you as a person and sees you as more than a sexual object is remarkable.

Yech. I don't blame her for latching on.

In the first phases of his adult years, the director (Feroz again) takes good advantage of Vinod's physical presence to establish Shakti as an unquestionable force. In this scene, the evil police (led by Amrish Puri as probably the most despicable villain I have yet seen him play) turn heavy-duty water hoses on some slum-dwellers, and Shakti just refuses to back down.

Hit me with your best shot!
Aruna Irani is great but very underused as Tara, a tough-as-nails widow who stands up to police bullying, helps raise Dayavan's children, and takes great risks to protect him as the police close in on him.

This being a Feroz Khan film, there is plenty of style. Because of the setting, most of it is much less gaudy than we would ordinarily expect, but Feroz-ji and his team still make things look really, really good. There's a lot of variety in texture and color done with materials that, like the characters, are a little rough around the edges.

He may not deserve credit for the look of the film's finest moment, but whoever does should be praised up and down, because this Holi song is wonderful! I mean, how could it not be - it starts out with Feroz playing a drum in a tree!

I love these last two shots particularly. In the first one, I like how the colors have all run together but you still see some distinct patches, and the angles of the dancers' arms add some sharpness too. Plus an actual rainbow! In the second, look how far back that line of dancers extends. And isn't it cool how the ramshackle dinginess of the slums has been combined with the choreographed liveliness and colors of the dance? Love!

Woooop! Woooop! Woooop! Irony alert! Irony alert!

Oh Madhuri. If my husband were a powerful don, I would never, ever say something like that! Have you never seen any films about gangsters? Shhhh, child!

Sigh. I love Vinod + Feroz as much as the next person,

but this just did not work for me. I'll just watch Qurbani again instead.

* I read a great quote somewhere about how people say "Bombay" when they mean the fabulous, now retro world of chiffon saris and baby blue convertibles and "Mumbai" when they mean corruption, danger, and everyone-for-themselves ethics. By that system, Dayavan is set in Mumbai, no doubt about it, no matter what years the story is set in.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cha Cha Cha! Bahut Accha! Award: you can't make this stuff up

HRH Pitu Sultan has brought to my attention a very Friday-appropriate song that leaves me speechless. Behold the
tap dance
top hat
totem pole
garter belt
silver geometric set pieces
cowboy hats
tuxedo pants
random Superman
oversized golden gun that shoots dancers
WONDER that is "Udi Baba Udi Baba" from Vidhaata (1982):

As if all that weren't enough, Tom Alter is in there! Of course, somebody/bodies actually did make this stuff up, and to them I am eternally grateful.

Don't know about you, but I'm about 1000% more ready for the weekend than I was before I watched this.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Khanna-o-Rama: Romance Restored

When we left off at Bollyviewer's site (this post won't make sense unless you read hers first): the SMILE coalition was all but forced out of CHARM by the Vinod-led SMOULDER faction. SMOULDER wanted the men of India to simply scowl, storm around, and spit at their lady loves. Some of the leading heroes and all of the villains were following Viond's lead, relieved to finally find a romance technique that would work for them since they were unable to master the subtle, gentle, thoughtful style of the SMILE coalition, led by Shashi Kapoor and practiced to great effect by his newphew Rishi, Jeetendra, and Rajesh Khanna. Even leading middle-ground proponents like Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan were finding it hard to resist Vinod's arguments...well, his angry mutterings more than proper logic-based statements, but when he rode up carrying rifles, it was hard to stand up to him.

Shashi headed to Delhi to consult with the PM and apprise her of the formal split in CHARM. "Madame, even if you send the intelligence service's top agents to watch Vinod closely with our most sophisticated surveillance equipment,

his dangerous hotness cannot be contained. I know him well enough - and have seen the effects he has on our heroines! - to know what a threat he poses." Distressed, Shashi headed back to Bombay.

The PM was determined to find a way to halt the influence of SMOULDER. The economic damage has been bad enough, but the thought of them trying to manage relationships between the women and men of Hindustan makes her weep for the future! If in fact there can even be a future, since the women are running away and hiding from all this poser-dacoit nonsense! "India as we know it cannot continue to function this way!" she exclaimed. "What would India be without ishq, pyaar, and mohabbat!"

The PM called a meeting with all her top advisers. Chaos reigned as each person shouted out their ideas of how to address the crisis in the nation. The Minister of Health and Family Welfare exclaimed "Let's call on Shashitabh, the power jodi of the decade! Surely no one can resist their pleas!"

Ms. Gandhi replied, "No, not this time. Shashi is already under enough stress, and poor Amit has been rendered useless by grief, pouting and sulking and writing awful poetry."

"Dharmendra and Hema, then?" wondered the Minister of Home Affairs.

"Even if they could pull their attentions away from each other, it's a job far bigger than even their capabilities can handle."

"Then what can we do?" cried the Minister of Women and Child Development. "Even lakhs of young women praying at temples has not been able to ease this national fever!"

"The gods themselves are powerless, I'm afraid. Prayers are no match for the misguided deeds of half the nation! The economy is crumbling, people are starving, and all the women are lonely and desperate without the likes of Shashi Kapoor to beguile them. I have no other choice: I am suspending the constitution and declaring Emergency."

Government policies were swift and severe. With the army and police given free reign over the streets, SMOULDER was driven underground, where it continued to attract the allegiance of India's males. Countless law enforcement officials succumbed, desperate to shed their boring khaki uniforms and become as handsome and attractive as Vinod. Women continue to back SMILE, but with so few adherents, there simply weren't enough men to go around. Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi made heartfelt speeches to the sisterhood about the importance of maintaining their values and not succumbing to the glowering, swarthy appeals of SMOULDER. The tensions even began to take its toll on bouncy, sunny SMILE leader Shashi Kapoor, who was so distressed at the situation that he had very little energy to bring forth his smile and other charms, thus inadvertently depriving the female population of what little romance they had left.

Things were bleak indeed.

Amazingly, the notes break off for months and months, skipping over the trials and tribulations of Emergency. They pick up again in 1977 to reveal what the PM did to solve this horrible situation. Two years have passed, and Ms. Gandhi is no closer to solving the disaster created by SMOULDER. One of her old friends and trusted advisers, Anthony Khan, recommends she take a little break with a new film, Dharam Veer, and sends her an advance copy for a private screening. After all, a good masala flick will at least help her better to understand the pulse of the nation, the dreams of the people, as depicted by one of India's greatest filmmakers. And it is during this film that Indira Gandhi had the best idea of her career. She may have started the film hoping just to relax for a few hours and enjoy Jeetendra's cavalcade of frilly shirts and Dharmendra's saucy dialogue delivery, but, miracle of miracles, she left with a sure-fire plan to save the country!

She rushed to her office after the screening and called her cabinet together. As they all filed in, rubbing their sleepy eyes, they wondered what on earth she needed to talk to them about in the middle of the night. Once they were settled in, she announced triumphantly "I've just figured out how to bring our nation back together!" With all the cabinet ministers looking on in awe, she pushed a secret button under her desk, and as two panels slid open on her credenza, a glitter-encrusted phone appeared. She picked up the receiver and said "Yahooooooo!" The assembled ministers blinked in disbelief. What could she be saying? She continued with her mysterious conversation, using a name they had all heard but to which they had never seen a face attached. "Khan, is that you?.... Yes, I know it's late. But Anthony, India needs you, now more than ever.... It's come to this. You must bring me the only two people in all of India who can solve this problem.... Theek hai. We'll wait." A few tense hours later, the entire cabinet was stunned as Shammi Kapoor, a.k.a. Anthony Khann, Chief of Staff for the National Integration Committee, marched into the office with each hand on the arm of a confused, bespectacled man. Khan/Kapoor spoke: "Madame. I present you your willing servants and unparalleled lovers of Hindustan, the Masala Masters themselves: Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj."

At this point, the government transcription office must have gone crazy as the cabinet broke out into murmurs in all official languages, expressing shock, surprise, appreciation for this wisdom, and, it must be said, glimmers of hope. The notes indicate that the PM was only able to restore order by whipping off a chappal and threatening the politicians with it, muttering something about khoon under her breath. The Minister of Defense shouted "Madame, do you realize what a huge undertaking this will be? We cannot just unleash the mighty forces of Masala without careful consideration. To employ them on a domestic mission is to leave us vulnerable to attack from neighboring countries!" "That is true," she replied wearily. "But who else could possibly devise a way to get at the heart of a national crisis of this magnitude? Who else can heal an Indian divide so effectively? Who else can show the right way to be an Indian hero?" The ministers are all on record as agreeing to the plan.

Believe it or not, the next document in this file Bollyviewer and I were given is a summary of what sounds very much like a film - except it isn't a film, it's real life! Indira Gandhi's brilliant idea was to ask Desai and Raj to write a script that would trick all of the members of CHARM into an emotional and heartfelt collaboration, proving to them that they were better off working together than separated into factions that cause the nation such grief and chaos. For once, all the actors of India worked together on an elaborately plotted script that bore directly on reality and had huge consequences (and no time for tea breaks)! Even more amazingly, the script had the desired effect, as everything went according to the plan of Gandhi, Kapoor/Khan, Desai, and Raj. The actors - both those who were in on the plan and those who were merely responding to the scene set before them - fell into their roles brilliantly, many of them without even realizing how important their work really was.

The action was kicked off by Nirupa Roy, who called Vinod and SMOULDER with the horrible news that Pran has kidnapped the entire female population of India! Unable to resist a call for help from such a source, Vinod and his fellow smoulderers gathered up all their guns and horses and raced to Pran's HQ to dishoom him. With Pran out of the way, they assumed they'd rescue the women and be off! But nothing is ever so simple in a Desai film! In this case, Pran was merely a puppet of the real villain: Bindu! She strode out from her secret lair, flanked by Helen and Laxmi Chhaya, returning SMOULDER's stares with ease. SMOULDER was dumbfounded: were they even allowed to fight with women? Disputes among the ranks broke out, and Vinod finally called them to order with an occular plan of attack. They tried their best to glare at them to make these women weak in the knees and give in, but they were tougher than the men - even tougher than Vinod, Ranjeet, and Shatrughan put together!

Distressed and dejected, the machos returned home to Nirupa to admit their failure. They stewed and brooded all the way home, singing a depressing song about how they cannot believe their formidable powers did not work. Nirupa, who of course was in on Desai's plan all along, knew they would fail and was ready with further advice on how to win over Bindu and her crew. SMOULDER would keep meeting defeat until they incorporated some SMILE. This particular devi cannot be impressed solely with smouldering - she requires some finesse as well.

While the men continued to sulk,

Nirupa called Shashi and SMILE for help. She knew her appeal to their confidence in their romantic ways would easily bring them into the plot, especially if she acted as distraught as possible.

She flattered Shashi with sweet words: "I've known you since Dharmputra! I may have chosen Amit over you in Deewaar, but that was just a film! You are really my favorite. Help us, please! Only you can save the women of India from this horrible fate! I beg of you, help us!"

He replied, "Of course, Maa! As long as you don't expect me to smoulder, I'll do anything for you!" and fell at her feat, sobbing. She took him to the temple, saying "Beta, place your hand on the statue and promise me that you will do whatever I ask," and he did so, wiping away a tear and secretly wishing there was a camera around to capture a scene to prove Nirupa loves him more than Amitabh.

Nirupa then revealed the plot: Shashi and SMILE must join forces with Vinod and SMOULDER to get the job done and restore the nation to order and unity. Shashi grudgingly admitted that he has to do what he has promised, so Nirupa arranged a meeting between the two factions. The next day, Vinod and Shashi met, alone, on a desolate hilltop, one in his dacoit ensemble, the other in his trademark white suit.

At first, things were very tense as Vinod circled Shashi and growled, but Shashi eventually broke through all the tension with just one word uttered in The Voice: "Bhaaaaaaaaaai!" The two clasped hands, embraced, and set out to save the women. Once they reached the evil HQ, they did an elaborately choreographed dance - how they knew the steps remains a mystery, since no choreographers were involved with the project, even in secret - in front of Bindu, Helen, and Laxmi, who shared a wink among themselves and pretended to melt hopelessly into puddles of pyaaaaaaaar as the supporting cast of men join in. Really, who could resist Shashi, Vinod, Rishi, Jeetendra, Feroz, and Dharmendra all together? While the top women were distracted, the "kidnapping victims" were rescued by Ranjeet, Dev Anand, Shotgun, and Rajesh Khanna. The women, who are also in on the plot, emerged when they saw that both SMOULDER and SMILE had joined forces to restore romance to the nation. Out of nowhere, sweeping violins crescendoed as the entire cast - even Pran, who made a miraculous recovery from Vinod's earnest dishooming- joined hands and walked into the sunset!

After this basic film document, the file contained newspaper clippings from March 21 full of headlines like
Though the Emergency was over, Prime Minister Gandhi, along with the reunited CHARM, wanted to make sure this disaster never happened again. The entire film fraternity got together to make sure every actor could master both styles. Even Shashi learned to smoulder; Even Vinod learned to smile.

This strategy has been so successful that it has continued down through the decades to today, with current heroes like Abhay Deol and Shahrukh Khan being fluent in many kinds of romance. Readers, what do you say? Which of today's heroes has most successfully mastered SMILE and SMOULDER? There is a poll on this blog and Bollyviewer's for you to vote in. If your top contenders aren't listed, write them in in the comments.

Update to post (July 6, 2010): here are the results of the poll. The top three you all chose are exactly what I would have done if just choosing on my own. Oh joyous SQUEEEEE for the linking of SRK and Shashi!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Doli Saja Ke Rakhna

This might be the shortest Khanna-related film review I ever write. What I learned from watching Doli Saja Ke Rakhna (apparently a remake of Aniyathi Pravu) is to be careful what you wish for: I'd been looking forward to seeing this for years because of its beautiful early vintage Akshaye Khanna, and on that front it did not disappoint,

but that is one of only two aspects about the film that are noteworthy in any way. DSKR is a late 90s spin on young lovers (Jyothika as Pallavi and Akshaye as Inder) whose families do not want them to be together. The little bits of tension along the way to a predictable and satisfying ending derive from wondering
1) how many times Pallavi's brothers (Mohnish Bahl, Paresh Rawal, and Tej Sapru) will beat up or otherwise bully Inder and his family (Anupam Kher and Moushumi Chatterjee),

2) whether Jyothika, about whom I have heard great things but who here does very little of interest, will employ any facial expressions other than this one,

and 3) in what exact proportions and order our leads will balance their love for one another and their respect for their families' wishes.
It reminds me very much of director Priyadarshan's later film with Akshaye, Hulchul, on the same basic structure. Hulchul has a lot more oomph, thanks definitely to the presence of Kareena Kapoor in a feistier role and performance, as well perhaps to merely being late enough (2004) to escape the fog of vaguely lower quality that lingers over so many 90s films. Doli Saja Ke Rakhna is not nearly as Priyadarshan-y as it could be, and for that I am grateful, but I cannot give you any reasons to watch it, either.

Above even Akshaye looking super dreamy, the best thing about the film is undoubtedly A. R. Rahman's soundtrack. It's glorious! Choreographers Saroj Khan, Raju Sundaram, Kala, and Farah Khan make the songs look as great as they sound. "Taram Pum" shows Inder cavorting with his friends, establishing him as a confident, exuberant young man, just the kind of boy you'd want pursuing you if your family is going to put up any resistance.

Fun, no? You can tell they're not truly bad-ass because of the positive nature of the graffiti.

And again we get basketball foreshadowing conflict!

The parallel song for Pallavi, "Jhula Bahon Ka Aaj Bhi Do Na Mujhe," shows her cavorting with her family at home.

Cute but not as fun. The Diwali sequence at around 4:35 is lovely, though.

The highlight of the whole film is Pallavi's literature-inspired fantasy sequence

in which she dreams of a star-crossed romance with Inder in a sort of European Renaissance setting. (So yes, the fantasy sequence is similar to the reality of the story except with different clothing.)

I've never noticed someone wearing an architectural white handkerchief head covering in their fantasy life, but hey, whatever trips your trigger.

And if that's what it takes to imagine Akshaye like this, then I'm all for it.

It's a beautiful and very relatable song. Another love song follows Inder's letters to Pallavi; as the breeze catches one of them and sends her scurrying down the halls of her house lest her family catch on she's communicating with Inder, the song transports them to Greece.

The juxtaposition of the leads in set after gorgeous set of traditional Indian clothing with the whitewashed Mediterranean was unexpectedly too beautiful for words. The last song that I just loved to bits (and to recap, I am very fond of five of the six songs in this film) was a lively piece set in a seaside town where Inder and Pallavi have escaped in the face family opposition.

It's a great song, with Aksahye leaping around with his pants rolled up and a plaid shirt tied at the waist

and improved further by Amrish Puri (as a friendly elder adviser type) doing some sort of drunken hornpipe.

But other than those facets - and an extremely cute meet-cute in the extremely Beth-approved setting of a university library -

this film is unremarkable.

Many thanks to Filmiholic for recording this for me off of tv a few months ago! Though the movie was lackluster, I loved getting to see the commercials aimed at the North American South Asian market, including the tear-jerker by Walmart showing the young desi boy heading off for college with a car full of loot for his apartment - that's the American dream, right there. And look how Sony Entertainment TV wishes people a happy Thanksgiving!

I have never, in the 30-odd Thanksgivings I have spent in the United States, noticed it being coupled with the Statue of Liberty, American flags, or a giant white cloud. Awesome!