Saturday, December 25, 2010

Filmi Secret Santa: The Twelve Days of Desai

Inspired by Temple's collection in last year's Filmi Secret Santas, I put together a little Manmohan Desai-specific treat for my giftee, Raja Sen. Click on the picture to go to a zoomable pdf on google docs, and be sure to read from the bottom up.

Or, for those who want to get new lyrics lodged in their head right away (and please sing it Muppet style):
Twelve fun disguises,
Eleven baddies scheming,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Nine ladies dancing,
Eight helpful critters,
Seven pairs of fab boots,
Six modes of transport,
Fiiiiiiiiive Kapoooooooooors,
Four sad Nirupas,
Three long-lost brothers,
Two healed eyeballs,
and Aaaaaamitabh in a booootttle!

Wishing you everything merry and bright, my Bolly loves!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tees Maar Khan

Before I get to the movie itself, I want to try to figure out what Farah Khan and/or her marketing staff's game is about this film being a very blatant remake of After the Fox - which I just watched yesterday, and believe me, TMK is at least 60% the same as it unreels, in addition to the almost identical basic story. I haven't been paying attention to the kerfuffle, but from what I gather she originally denied that TMK was inspired by ATF but then later admitted it was a remake, and an official one at that. What a strange way to handle it: if you've got the rights to remake a film, then why not just say that that is what you're doing? Why not stop negative rumors right away and be proud you've done the right thing by going about it legally and ethically?

On to the film! There's a broad spectrum of performance and writing possibilities between "less is more" and "broad as the day is long," and while it is unfair to ask this movie to be something it neither is nor probably intended to be, I wish Farah had pulled TMK back from the latter a little more often. A few aspects of TMK felt very low to me - and not just "you don't have to think at all in order to get this" but actually clumsy or base, like TMK's endless catchphrases, conjoined twins, and the $&!@# gay stereotypes that defined five characters. In fact, even just turning the CBI officers* into actual people would have helped a lot, principally because they are central to the film's most wackadoodle scene, the escape on the airplane. On an upcoming episode of Masala Zindabad, Amrita will talk about the importance of the first 20 minutes of a film to one's overall impression of it, and I was almost lost as the airplane shenanigans went on and on and on. The blame for that falls on whoever was in charge of the extras, who were clownish well beyond what was required to contrast Akshay's cool, smooth criminal. And who was that plank of wood in high heels playing the airline authority's spoiled daughter? Terrible. Anyway. I like my movie tongue to be in cheek rather than waggling manically and blowing raspberries, which is why I like Main Hoon Na much more than Tees Maar Khan.

I do appreciate that Farah and crew did not do another film so dependent on movie references, as much as I like those. After the Fox is a very appropriate story to transplant into Bollywood, and the adaptation made sense and suited both story and context well. Trains are more interesting to rob on screen than a boat - they're much more intense and menacing - and I was pleasantly surprised that TMK's escapes established his physical criminal abilities (lock-picking and quick disappearance) instead of the "master of disguise" work that Peter Sellers's Fox specializes in. (Interesting that a masala-loving director like Farah would pass up the opportunity for a double role and tons more costumes, though, isn't it?) But on the other hand, I wish Shirish Kunder had left in all three of the female characters instead of condensing Fox's love interest and the wannabe starlet (his sister) into one. And why not make some of the prominent villagers or police female? Of all the people running around in this, only two are women, and there's no need for that shortage. Snarky self says that maybe it's to give Katrina less to be compared to?

The only real problem I had with the actual storyline of TMK was its odd lurches into schmaltz. It felt as though Shirish and Farah thought "Oh hang on, we haven't had any emotion-jerking children yet! Quick, let's toss some into that forest over there! And make them in effect orphans! Who are slave labor! For drugs!" The adult characters' responses to that situation made no sense either, with fathers too busy shouting to each other "My son is over there!" to remove their children from danger. TMK's soft heart for the villagers was sweet, and even the song celebrating it wasn't egregiously out of place, but the scene with the missing children had zero context either before or after its appearance. It would have been very easy to invent something else heroic and dil-squish-y for TMK to do that fit more easily, even something involving kids, like save one from a spotlight that almost crashes down on her or a truck going amok. But it felt shoehorned into the flow out of...well, I have no answer based on what else I saw in the film, so snarky self pipes up again to propose a lack of confidence in more subtle character development.

Overall, though, I enjoyed myself sufficiently, giggled a lot, cackled here and there, and was truly in love with the bright but coherent colors in the sets and costumes. (Speaking of sets, I want that poster Akshaye Khanna has of himself in his movie star-sleek house, not only because it's visually hilarious but also because I love how romantic leads in 90s and early 2000s films have giant photographs of themselves in their own homes and I want the set crew to know that I loved their joke. And Katrina's bedroom! GORGEOUS. I already have a red living room but that wallpaper and paint combo was to die for! The Khan kitchen was also really cool, filled with happy colors and little framed prints.) As with Housefull and Action Replayy, Akshay Kumar was generally much, much better than a lot of what was going on around him. Though I don't count myself a particular fan of his, he was entertaining to watch and had oodles of fun and sparkle. Maybe this was good timing - I was soooo in the mood for fun and sparkle after a month dominated by viewing choices like Udaan, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Siddhartha, and Love Sex aur Dhokha. He's got an engaging vitality that this film made good use of - I kept thinking of both his character and his performance as the engine on the train, staying on track and keeping up the speed. However, I remain unconvinced that Katrina Kaif can act or dance. I was hoping her brain-dead wannabe starlet was going to be a parody like Lina Lamont, but I honestly think that the cardboard delivery and flapping about are mostly her.

No one will be surprised to hear that I laughed like a loon at much of Akshaye Khanna's performance, ridiculous as it was. Even in Priyadarshan films I haven't seen him go overboard like he did here, and for a fan like me it was a fun experiment. He tempered the jaw-clenching nicely with a few puzzled, the-lightbulb-is-almost-on looks as his manager kept insisting something was fishy. And the very idea of Akshaye as that kind of superstar is a hoot in itself. That said, even effectively channeling dacoit-era Hot Papa Khanna with the angry shouting, sash, and black tilak, I think he'll do better long-term in more nuanced secondary roles like Aaja Nachle and Luck by Chance. I'm just glad I got to see him on the big screen without having to resort to Shortkut or No Problem.

And while that's not a major point to end on, that's okay, because I don't have any major points to make about Tees Maar Khan. I didn't hate it, I didn't adore it, it made me laugh, it had lots of pretty colors, and nobody in my local cinema laughed at the "joke" about raping prostitutes. That's good enough on a snowy Saturday afternoon.

* Irrelevant question: does anyone else take an instant dislike to Aman Verma? He always seems so weasley to me. On the other hand, I love Murli Sharma - he's probably my current top "that guy"!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

mini-reviews: Udaan and Loins of Punjab Presents

Good heavens it's been a quiet few weeks at Beth Loves Bollywood! I have, however, been doing tons of work for the Masala Zindabad podcast (and blog) with Amrita, much of which has not aired yet. As episodes air, I hope also to write here about the films I watched in preparation for them - which means in the next few months there will be pieces on Love Sex aur Dhokha and Ishqiya (finally!), a romp through some early 70s Telugu films, and even something by a certain megastar. The other significant reason for my absence is that my actual job is eating me alive and will probably continue to do so until mid-February.

But! I have managed to see a few things here and there. Udaan was barely on my radar until Cinema Chaat posted about it and I thought "Oh yeah, the one that screened at Cannes"! I should probably duck for cover as I write this, but I found Udaan predictable and corny despite what I think were extremely good intentions and some careful filmmaking. It looks fantastic, the acting is purposeful, and its few lighter notes and small touches very real and sweet. It is on that last point that I think the film shines most - there is something tender and meaningfully normal in moments like lead character Rohan sitting outside with his notebook with industrial gray behind him, the contrast between family dinners at the boys' home compared with the love and homemade-ness of the table at their aunt and uncle's house, or the Superman doll shared between the brothers.

The small gestures of increasingly familiarity and affection between the brothers are the emotional weight of the film to me - such an endearing story of two strangers slowly and genuinely learning about each other, bonding, and, of course, offering protection.

But the overall story felt like something I've seen a million times before (though granted not in Hindi), and this was aggravated by some heavy-handed symbolism, namely the running race that the abusive father insists on having every morning with his initially meek but gradually bolder son. From the moment the father insists they race, I knew exactly how the film would end. The same is true of the huge, clanking machinery at the factory through which the camera looks on poor Rohan's sad face: we already understood that the life his father forces on him oppresses him without having one of its most dangerous aspects appear to smash him.

Some key elements of this film struck me as especially clunky when other parts were so delicately and gently handled. This inconsistency - inelegant writing but beautifully suitable interior scenes, for example - just made my frustrations worse. Uddaan does certainly earn an A for intentions and willingness to even try to portray such a sad and important topic as child abuse, but even that does not mean I call it good overall.

Loins of Punjab Presents, however, is a total success. Here is a film that knows exactly how and and why to go big and obvious - the angry, foul-mouthed, but hilariously insecure wannabe who relies on his best friend for motivation affirmations like "I was born to be the galactic Jedi life force of bhangra!" - and when to keep jokes, commentary, and even delivery quieter - the straight-faced, one-sentence victory of the quietly talented teenager over the fanged machinations of the calculating villain. Every element in this film is either bang-on, evocatively parodic or affectionately "it's funny 'cause it's true." And often both.

The Christopher Guest-esque mockumentary style is a great way to roll out and incorporate the huge list of characters, each one of them familiar, I think, to anyone who is a part of or interacted with (or even watched Indian, US, or British pop culture portrayals of) desi subcultural types. The skewering of talent shows and the classic formula of "let's put a bunch of previously unrelated people in a high-pressure situation and confined space for 48 hours" mean that the film should work even for people not familiar with a variety of stereotypes of Indians abroad and NRI culture.

I'm a sucker for stories about culture clash in the United States, and Loins felt like the comedic response to the Shabana Azmi/Shashi Kapoor*/Art Malik arc of Side Streets. I loved the film's discussions of what it means to be Indian, especially in the context of contemporary America and without delving into the simplistic jingoism that can accompany flag-waving stage shows in films. And for being recognizable types - the statistics nerd, the musician with a delusional sense of his own artistic importance, the embarrassingly conviction-fueled white boy who out-does everyone else's "phir bhi dil hai hindustani" - some of the principal characters have more nuance to them than you might expect. But at the same time none of them do anything truly out of character. My favorite is probably the sleazy event manager who turned out to be far wiser than his track suit and mustache would suggest.

And the acting! Nearly perfect from nearly everyone. Shabana's villain is a particular treat to watch, and I have never seen this great performer be so unrelentingly funny. Darshan Jariwala creates a character a world apart from the version of Gandhi he played that same year, Seema Rahmani's stumbles are full of pathos, and director/writer/star Manish Acharya is sweet and smart as a darling and daring nerd who's a bit out of his element.

There is not a moment of this film I don't love to bits and find emotionally impacting. In the rare seconds I wasn't giggling or downright cackling, I was feeling something for or because of these earnest characters. There are people to root for even though you know their limitations and people to hiss at because you cannot wait for their limitations to catch up with them. Everyone scurries around content in their own ridiculousness, yet somehow some of them find ways to really relate to one another. I could go on and on even more, but lest Editor Self forbid me from the mini-review format again, I'll just end by saying that Loins of Punjab Presents is a wholly engaging film with a big heart and just the right amount of bite and that you should see it right now. I promise to put my copy from Netflix back in the mail ASAP.

Read our friend Filmiholic's interview with much-missed Manish Acharya here.

* How pleased was I that Shashi was evoked in this film? Very!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

mini-reviews: Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey and Siddhartha

If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all? Fine. I'll keep this short. Yesterday I saw both Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey and Siddhartha and have little praise for either despite my love of the male leads and historical topics.

Worst thing first: Siddhartha. Conrad Rooks's 1972 adaptation of the Herman Hesse novel of the same name (which I haven't read) is mind-numbingly boring and inelegant. The script seems to be nothing - and I mean nothing - but the Big Moments and Deep Thoughts of the title character, who is a solipsistic, egotistical whiner on a life-long search for meaning. The story bounces from one trite "life decision" to another, sprinkled with philosophies cribbed from Dove Promises wrappers (for my non-American readers, these are chocolates wrapped in foil printed with gems from the worst self-help advice book for the most pathetic stereotype of a middle-aged soccer mom you can imagine). I couldn't decide if I liked most of the sentiments behind the cheese Siddhartha spewed and it was just the phrasing that was the problem, but the language is so insultingly simplistic that I just gave into my anger. Maybe when the film came out in 1972 some of this seemed worth putting in a feature film; in 2010 it's nothing but mockable.

Overall the film has no real substance or texture, none of the small moments or details that make life what it is, at least not in the dialogue or events. Visually the film is rich, full of gorgeous sunsets, riverscapes, and (anachronistic) palaces, as well as different settings for each stage of Siddhartha's life, complete with different homes and household items, clothing, hairstyles, etc. (I should note I have a good friend who thinks it's little more than a western fetishistic view of India.)

Shashi Kapoor does the character no service whatsoever, using a stilted, pronouncement-from-on-high style of delivery that I've never heard him use in any of his many English roles in Merchant and Ivory films (let alone in Hindi films). He looks great in all the different trappings and versions of the character as we see him age across several decades of his life, but even for me, Shashi costume porn does not a movie make.

It is nice, though.

But at least there's a puppy! Shashi with a puppy! It's the best part of the film.

I have a few more compliments for Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Say, though not many. The most powerful part of the film, despite the very dramatic and important story at its foundation, is the final credits: the names and sometimes heart-wrenching photographs of the real-life participants in the Chittagong uprising accompany smaller pictures of the actors who played them. I loved this simple method of giving credit where credit is due, as well as a last hurrah to the many competent players in the film's solid cast (Sikander Kher and Maninder Singh are the standouts in my opinion - left and second from left below). The ensemble is very strong and I appreciated Gowariker's approach of trying to show the contributions of so many of the individuals involved in both the historical event and the current retelling.

But somehow the film did not cohere into anything for me. It's really slow throughout the first half, and I'm not even a person who needs "action" to be bombastic or fast. There must be a way to make recruiting, planning, and supply-procuring exciting, but this wasn't it. The pace picks up post-interval with the execution of the plans and their horrifying aftermath, but even these are hampered by too many furrowed brows and the biggest collection of the worst white extras you have ever seen, who are especially egregious in contrast to the screen filled with talented Indian teenagers as the youngest members of the revolutionary army. Where in the name of Tom Alter did they find these idiots? Were there no actual British people in Goa during the filming? Or native English speakers of any shade of pale? Usually there's little I enjoy more in a period film set in the British empire than the imperialists getting their arses handed to them in rounds of rickety musket fire from the locals and in rousing speeches about freedom infused with moral high ground, but in this depiction, nothing stirs, nothing cooks, and nothing boils over. My expression in the cinema probably mirrored the rebels' look of confusion and surprise when they find the armory filled to the gills with guns but no bullets: it seems like all the ingredients should have been there, so why are there no fireworks?

Also: really, Gowariker? Deepika plays badminton again? I really hope there is historical evidence for Kalpana Dutta enjoying that sport or I'm going to have to thump you on the head.

If you want more bite-sized portions of big thoughts on films, the master of the mini-review is decidedly ...So They Dance!