Let's start with "worse." Recently I've bailed on not one, not two, but three films, an all-time record for me. Before January 2011, there were only three Indian films I had switched off without finishing (Kyon Ki, Pardes, and Dance Dance), but in the last two weeks the population of that sad category has doubled. Clearly my selection process is flawed.
Shotkut: The Con Is On
why I started: No prize for guessing that Khanna the youngest once again led me astray - though really, fool me twice? shame on me! - and I like Arshad Warsi too. Netflix kept suggesting I watch it, and even as my memory responded with faint recollections of very negative reviews at the time of its release, I kept thinking "Well it can't be that bad."
why I bailed: Yes. Yes it can. Maybe the spelling of the title should have tipped me off (though this was nowhere near as fun as Tashan and much more painful than I Hate Luv Storys). I gave Shortkut 20 minutes to produce anything vaguely resembling entertainment or providing even a pinky finger worth of a person I cared about, and it failed. On paper, the idea of Akshaye Khanna as a struggling artist type is a good one, at least for me, but we never saw him struggle and weren't told a thing about the dream or vision or whatever he was determined to fulfill. We just saw his confidence, accompanied by a popular starlet girlfriend. Oh boo-hoo. Arshad Warsi's slimeball character was no better, far too aggressive and irritating to be funny. The only good moments in the approximately 23 minutes I watched were Akshaye in glasses and the kite made of lights in the first song.
Ta Ra Rum Pum
why I started: I love Rani Mukherji. I love Saif Ali Khan. I love them together. I had a copy of this lying around (don't judge! it was a gift!) and after a very long Saturday at work I felt like watching something shiny and charming.
why I bailed: This film is neither shiny nor charming. This is by far the worst performance I have seen out of Rani even though it seemed like the kind of material she could do with both hands tied behind her back. Then again, why would she want to? Her character was grating and there was absolutely no reason other than "it's in the script" for Saif's wannabe-racer to fall for her at first sight. Speaking of, this script is by Habib Faisal, who also did Do Dooni Char and Band Baaja Baaraat, so who knows what went wrong here. Maybe Rani's horrible orange wig impaled one its tentacles into the brains of cast and crew? As for the hero...Saif as a loverboy is a perfectly fine default mode, but by Helen he is too old for this kind of thing and needs to be surrounded by great writing and lots of other charms to buoy it - I eagerly gobbled up that act in Love Aaj Kal, which was full of so many other lovable ideas and questions. Car racing and cutesy-poo children are not the kind of story window dressing that grabs me. It's entirely possible that things improved in the "now" part of the film in which our couple has already gotten through the meet-not-cute and it makes sense for their children to be addressing the audience and Saif could act his age, but I couldn't make it that far.
why I started: Fairy Filmi Ending suggested it for an impromptu watch-along, and besides, it looked so pretty in the trailers!
why I bailed: No amount of gypsy skirts and Jesus beards and fading architectural grandeur can camouflage the garbage of this script. After Saawariya I have become very wary and intolerant of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's self-gratifying filmmaking. If he wants to make beautiful things that are full of nothing and just kept them to himself, tacked up on his fridge, or even sent to family members as birthday presents, then that's his business; releasing such things into the general public with formal arrangements that involve him asking us for money to experience them makes his indulgent delusions all of our business, and I for one am not having any part of them.
Hrithik Roshan's character is prickly with sharp edges that scream "won't somebody please see past my horrible exterior to what's really in my diiiiil?" without being the least bit engaging. What seemed to be the film's central question - should this damaged man be allowed to end his life - didn't interest me because my thoughts on the matter are very clear and I don't need any debate, certainly not from cardboard tragic jerks like Ethan. (Raise your hand if you think they named the character "Ethan" just so they could make the "ethanasia" joke.) Maybe I should give SLB and co-writer Bhavani Iyer some credit for even trying to discuss an ethical question. Maybe I should have looked up the credits before watching and realized that Iyer also worked on Love Story 2050 and saved myself the bother. By the time FFE and I pulled the plug on Guzaarish, Hrithik and Aishwarya Rai had already perfected the "flare and stare" technique of demonstrating emotionally intense conflict with overdone facial expressions and wild nostrils. I did like the flashes of Rekha that I saw in Aishwarya here and there, but not enough to continue, especially through the cheesy music and "but love is everything"-lesson-spewing student played by Aditya Roy Kapoor's hair. Lesson learned: Bhansali, at least, cannot polish poo.
And now for the better. Adapting The Importance of Being Earnest for popular Indian cinema sounds like a great idea - mysterious identities! snobbery! coincidental interconnections! - and in Ashta Chamma director/writer Mohan Krishna Indraganti delivers on almost all of the delights promised by such a combination. I'm curious if the film came across as more farcical if you know the language; going by the subtitles, it seemed like a much milder comedy that mixed some very silly elements (extreme fangirlyness) and one lighthearted character with things I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to laugh at (brotherly protection of sisters and other family obligations). That is not a criticism - the story still worked very well in the context of 20somethings who worry about who they are in a world that places quite a few restrictions and responsibilities on them - but it is definitely a softer version of the Earnest plot.
It also has some sharper moments of self-awareness that provided some welcome bite: Algernon (Srinivas Avasarala) worries that things are dangerously filmi when Gwendolen (Colours Swathi) and Cecily (Bhargavi) embrace each other over their mutual wronging by
Miss Prism's narration of her fateful addle-brained moment is funny both as a modern-day explanation for how someone could forget a baby in their charge and for its interplay with other elements of the story, and Gwendolen is criticized for being unhappy even though everyone else is ready to move on to the standard happy resolution and wind things up.
One of the things I liked about Ashta Chamma is how normal everyone in it is - well, relatively, anyway, given that they're in an Oscar Wilde comedy. There's none of the eye-scarring fashions or ostentatious interior decor so often used in films to show wealth, and the result is pleasingly like a school production in which actors wore their own clothes and the flights of fancy narrated in songs had to be expressed without relying on teleporting to exotic locales. Even the hero-establishing song introducing dream boy Mahesh (Nani) is charmingly unspectacular. There's something really endearing about a film that sets up its romantic lead with pompoms and tablecloths rather than...oh, I don't know, a roaring motorcycle or Matrix-style fights.
The standout performance for me was Srinivas, who glides around with comic detachment as effortlessly as Rupert Everett. While I don't think the film would have worked as well if all the actors had been as exaggerated, it was great to have one firm stylistic tie to the tone of the original. The only disappointment was that not nearly enough was made of the Lady Bracknell character (Jhansi), who came off as crabby and fussy rather than grandly self-important and easily scandalized. I can imagine she was written this way to contrast with the entirely fluffy Gwendolen; both women follow their firmly-entrenched values, and neither set makes perfect sense. But that's only a small flaw. Overall the film is brisk, well-balanced, funny, and cute, and it makes very good use indeed of its source material - and even credits it!