Monday, January 31, 2011

mini-reviews: one out of four ain't bad

December and January have proven quite productive for movie-watching...but not for movie-reviewing. Perhaps because I'm so swamped at work, I just haven't had the energy to write up - or even mention - many of the things I've seen: Shaheed, Pyare Mohan, Mother India, Ganga Jamuna Saraswati, China Town, Mahakaal, Athadu, Welcome to Sajjanpur, Mixed Doubles, and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. A few of these, like Mother India and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, are on the "re-watch and write about later" pile because I was too overwhelmed by them to write at the time; many of the others inspired no interesting or notable thoughts. The remainder are a mixed bag of things that don't require further consideration before discussing, for better or worse.

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 Earnest Mahesh,

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!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If there's one thing we've learned from the internet, it's that there is always someone out there even weirder than we are.

Following 4DK's hilarious and eyebrow-raising lead, here is a short list of some of the most amusing and confusing search terms that led people to Beth Loves Bollywood over the last year. Apparently many readers share my curiosity about Akshaye Khanna's hair, providing several variations on that theme:
  • Akshaye Khanna hair
  • Akshaye Khanna hair loss
  • Akshaye Khanna losing hair
  • what did Akshaye Khanna do to his hair
What, indeed! Perhaps he should ask Rekha, whose enviable tresses yielded:
  • Rekha secret for long hair
  • what is the secret of Bollywood Rekha ji for her beautiful hair
Family Khanna sent much love my way, far more than Shashi Kapoor:
  • is Akshaye Khanna gay
  • Akshaye Khanna girlfriend
  • Vinod Khanna shirtless in Qurbani video
  • is Rahul Khanna gay
Some specific inquiries make sense, especially given my particular interests and writing style:
  • Shashi Kapoor fan blog
  • Shaitani Dracula review
  • Maha Chor bellbottoms
  • 3rd person singular madlib
  • Asoka sexy
  • Krantiveer love rap lyrics [I'd like to know those too!]
  • Bollywood feminism
  • Bollywood movie with crocodile [some form of the word "crocodile" appeared in half a dozen searches]
  • Bollywood robot
  • youtube Bollywood female swashbucklers [if anyone does find these, please let me know!]
  • musthave Bollywood film
Others made me wonder what part of "Bollywood" the person did not understand: Kim Cattrall young pictures.

My version of the "Really?" award, which is not as funny as 4DK's, is Amrish Puri shirtless scenes

The "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" award goes to what went wrong in Indian culture.

And my absolute favorite: Amitabh Bachchan wearing poncho
, not the least because I can actually deliver!


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quid Pro Quo: Adventures in £1 DVDs part 2

After the dismal Khel Mohabbat Ka, I was really wary to try another of the £1 bargain-bin wonders from my friend Celia in the UK. But curiosity won out - as it so often does when it comes to Bollywood films that I have reason to fear - so into the DVD player went Anokha Rishta, a slightly creepy 1986 take on Daddy Long Legs. Rajesh Khanna stars as Bob, the benefactor of an orphaned teenage girl, Mary (Sabiha). Once at college and away from the shelter of her Catholic orphanage, Mary falls in love with Bob without realizing who he is.

Karan Shah plays Will, a good-for-nothing playboy type who works for Rajesh and falls for Mary.

Smita Patil also appears as Dr. Padma Khanna, Bob's long-ago star-crossed love interest, and I'll tell you that if there is one thing I have now seen more than enough of in my life, it is fog-laced, soft-focus snuggling between Smita Patil and Rajesh Khanna.

The reason I say "creepy" is that, in addition to Rajesh beginning to look plastic-y and occasionally orange (which may be what you get for £1), I could not shake the fear that Mary was going to turn out to be the illegitimate child of Bob and Padma and thus unknowingly be in love with her own father - and then Will would also turn out to be Bob's nephew (I was not clear on the relationship between Will and Bob - one of those cases of people calling each other "uncle" and "bhai" figuratively, I think) and thus be lusting after his cousin. Not an unreasonable fear, I think, given how often long-lost family members drop in out of the sky in Hindi films and how very, very wretched an orphan character is who does not find at least one relative by the end of their film. BLECH. Fortunately, my fears were for naught; if Mary's parentage is revealed, I missed it. So at least I can say for Anokha Rishta that it is free of incest. I have read that Sabiha later accused Rajesh of "lewd behavior" while on the sets, ratcheting that ick factor waaaaaaay back up in a much more serious way.

HOWEVER. There were many points during the first 110 minutes of this film that I almost wished there had been incest because at least that would have been INTERESTING. This movie is SO BORING. It kicks off with one of the most saccharine songs I have ever seen, "Chal Saheli," filled with literal bus-loads of orphans dancing on hilltops and never-ending choruses of "la la la."

The hills are aliiiiiiiiive with the sounds of ooooooorphaaaaaaans!
But after that, it's basically a snore full of unlikable people getting themselves into untenable, foolish situations. Not until the final half hour is there anything worth discussing - and I can't talk about those things because doing so would spoil it! (But if you've seen this movie: OMG, can you believe that character did THAT? Crazy!) Before I mention a handful of small points with pictures, I will share that one mark of the movie having gone bonkers, and therefore getting much better, is that Bob has nightmares of Mary in habit.

I also think that Mary's face in the final scene indicates that this is not really the happy ending that we have been conditioned to expect

and makes me feel quite bad for her even though she's been nothing but whiny and stupid for the entire course of the film.

Anokha Rishta is one of those movies that frustrates me because I feel like I should find more to say about it than I have been able to despite mulling it over for a few days and having ingredients like a ton of Catholic imagery and references, daddy issues and a related delusional May-December romance, a hint of religious differences dooming a different romance, and Karan Shah apparently completely naked in a shower. Even the vaguely distressing appearance of the amazing Smita Patil slumming it in this mess just leaves me speechless. (Though I will say she is by far and away the best thing about the movie and I'm glad for her that her few scenes are relatively dignified.) Luckily for us, even in a bad film, a pound can buy you a few entertaining moments and screen caps. For example, Satish Shah (as Bob's colleague) has a funny track in which he and Will exchange angry words through voiceovers indicating unspoken internal dialgoues. Sometimes these include things like "How do you know what I'm thinking?" I am not usually a fan of his work but this comic side plot was done really well, never too much and never too stupid. This particular line made me giggle in light of Main Hoon Na.

Mary's friend Sherry wears quite the white poofy party dress and heeled boots. I'm pretty sure I would have loved this outfit when I was 12 in 1986.

Will too has some snazzy 80s duds.

Bob...not so much. He has at least three sweatshirts with big writing on them, including a sleeveless one emblazoned with "CHICAGO" that appears in Mary's fantasy after she falls in love with him.

Given that this scene is completely imaginary, I wonder why she didn't dress him better? Why the white jeans, white socks, white loafers, and a sleeveless sweatshirt? Is that just what Rajesh Khanna wore to the set that day? Interestingly, he's nicely dressed in suits and kurtas in the business and home scenes; it's only in the couple-y moments that he takes on a Bill Cosby/Sylvester Stallone/Jeetendra look.

Totally Filmi has said she's interested in watching at this film along with Kanamarayathu, the Malayalam version that came before it (also by director I. V. Sasi). I'm looking forward to some good discussion at that point, especially if the Malayalm film turns out to have even the slightest bit more going for it than this one.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Wardat (Gunmasteeeeeer geee niiiiiiiine!)

[Spoilery but not in a way that affects much. I figure if you're reading this post, either you have already seen Wardat and wish to re-live its glory or you're curious enough about it that you'll see it no matter what anyone says.]

What could there possibly be left to say about Wardat when so many people have already written about it so well? It's horrendous. It's exhausting. It's ridiculous. It's delightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly in my watchalong with Temple but never want to see it again. From plastic locusts controlled by radio signals and baby dolls suffering from drug-induced comas to bulgy-veined golden Egyptian statues and a dance hall covered (and I mean covered) with aluminum foil, it is crammed full of silly things meant to entertain you. Some of them are spectacularly ugly, cheap, and/or nonsensical (this film has little sound internal logic). And somehow it has nourished the seed of a true, completely un-ironic love of Mithun Chakraborty, who may be in some craptastic films but seems to give them his all and whose dancing I always enjoy no matter what insults are hurled at it.

My friend Denis shares my impressions and seems have a zest for putting them on paper that I just don't have - trying to cohere the insanity of the film took it all out of me - so I think he will forgive me for simply quoting him at length from his article at
All that combined would make Wardat a solid yet not especially remarkable movie, but the film’s director Ravikant Nagaich decides to put out all the stops for the final three quarters of an hour of his film. Suddenly everything that was alright before turns into the sort of brilliant, ridiculous fun I had hoped for from the beginning.

Mithun does SCIENCE! in front of multi-coloured, blinking lights. Suddenly, we are in Africa, at once in a jungle, a desert and on a mountain. Mithun and Kajal are drugged for a cheaply psychedelic romp of tumble-dancing. Then, we enter the lair of our true main bad guy which is probably situated in a ruin in Egypt – at least that’s what the statues in it look like, though his dancing troupe (yes, of course our heroes will pretend to be part of it directly before the big finale) is dressed in a mix of Peruvian, Aztec, and Hollywood Africana and his guards are wearing what looks like white kendo masks – and are suddenly confronted with some of the most eye-popping uses of red lighting that have ever touched human eyes, a baby farm, torture by shaking, a duel to the death with added sharpshooting archers, mind-control, Mithun wrestling a tiger and various explosions large and small. In other words, all the extreme, silly excitement on could wish for turns up, shouts gleefully at your face, dances a little jig, fights and leaves this always hopeful, yet oh so often disappointed watcher of dubious movies with a warm afterglow and a sudden and frightening love for Mithun Chakraborty.
I do so adore it when a film that is kind of a hot mess in some way or other - slow, boring, erratic, incoherent - suddenly gels into the kind of glorious WTFery that involves tigers and secret doors and ooga-booga-esque costumes and jodhpurs and archers and hand-to-hand combat and death-by-rock-a-bye-baby and a fanged sphinx, don't you?

In addition to my admission of a burgeoning love for Mithun, please accept as my humble offerings to the public discourse on Wardat this small collection of my favorite moments with limited commentary spelled badly.

Full song here.
One of the things I love about these movies is that the strangest of things can go completely unremarked upon, as though having a disco club whose dominant decorative motif is giant dismembered hands holding an equally giant bowl and surrounded by Tetris pieces is the most mundane thing in the world.

All the interiors in this film before the Egyptian themes take over are eye-scarring in that way that conjures up basement rec rooms full of cast-off furniture and a hodgepodge of yesteryear's draperies and couches.

Full song, including shots of the whole room that is covered in foil and has glittery letters spelling out "LOVE NEST" suspended from the ceiling, here.
From the moment I first saw Disco Dancer almost five years ago I have been obsessed with the use of dark socks or slippers in dance costumes. These are just about the least alluring footwear you could possibly choose. So very grandpa. And look carefully and tell me if you think the floor here is the same one in the previous song two pictures up but with the red crosses removed?

One thing Wardat does very well: blinking lights and expansive scientific equipment.

I honestly like this. Why not just knock out some hieroglyphs and add neon pink lighting?

One thing Wardat does not do very well: seamlessly overlay footage of ancient Egyptian ruins with shots of its actors in silly costumes to create the effect of being in Egypt.

He's not under cover anymore at this point, but still. Why provoke your captors?

For those of you who have not seen the film, allow me to catalog the components of this image:
• a posse of unidentified black dudes in very polyester suits,
• yards and yards of plastic tubing that, if I understand the scene correctly, carries some kind of locust-transmittable poison to babies (actually dolls) from the mouth of a sphinx at the back of the lab who oversees the torture area,
• Shakti Kapoor with his shirt halfway undone, and
• an anonymous female minion who has been force-fed a chemical that makes her super strong but mind-controlled by Shakti.

And to end: something you definitely do not wish to think about in conjunction with Jagdeep.

As if that weren't bad enough, note the skinny baby blue belt. Cinch it!

Friday, January 14, 2011

mini-reviews: I Hate Luv Storys and What's Your Raashee?

Neither of these movies was as painful as I was expecting, but I'm still having as much fun considering a combination of their names as a title for this post as I did watching either. Luv and Hate. I Hate Your Luv. I Hate Your Raashee. I Luv Your Story. Luv: A Story. What's Your Story? And, most importantly, I H8 How U Foolz Spell Ur Moovees.

Anyway. I Hate Luv Storys didn't come to my cinema when it released and I couldn't have cared less. I very much dislike Sonam Kapoor based on Saawariya and Delhi-6 and thought "Oh dear me" when Filmi Girl said she had turned it off after 10 minutes. But Netflix Instant kept trying to get me to watch it, so one cold and snowy afternoon over the December holidays I gave in. I made it through the whole film and have very little to say for my efforts. It's so rare that I'm interested in the romantic bumblings of 20somethings in ironic t-shirts, and there was nothing otherwise appealing about either lead to make up for their foolishness. Even when they managed to convince me that they actually loved each other, I couldn't see why they possibly would - or care that they did. Sonam did nothing to improve my opinion of her and Imran was not nearly as endearing or lovable as he was on Koffee with Karan, which I suspect we can chalk up to the material.

Even the film-world setting was mostly a snooze. I did appreciate the focus on the backstage crew rather than actors, dancers, or even musicians and was glad to see a female boss, even if she was someone who seemed too easily flustered and of an age very unlikely to have sufficient experience for the job she was in. Also amusing were some of the comments on extravagant, oversized filmi houses, which is one of my pet research projects that I have yet to post about but love collecting screen caps in support of. The film-within-the-film's director (Samir Soni) raves about one of the characters' homes thus:

"It's beautiful! Look look...there is a staircase inside the house...

and the staircase has molding too!" SQUEEEEE! Architectural froo-froo! Now that is funny. I also enjoyed his attitude about socioeconomic realities, and I couldn't quite tell if he was supposed to be a master of marketing or a blissfully ignorant dimwit inhabiting a world formed wholly by lush song picturizations. "These people are not rich, but they shouldn't be too poor either," he explains. "Just right."

The most interesting question raised by I Hate Luv Storys is exactly how far up producer Karan Johar's bum director/writer Punit Malhotra was trying to climb. If he had kept the film references to about 15% Karan Johar films, they would have seemed more like actual good-humored self-aware writing and less like lead-footed unctuousness.

To be honest, I watched What's Your Raashee? because Fairy Filmi Ending suggested it for a watchalong and I thought it might be an amusing craptacular dodecahedron of ridiculousness - I mean, what kind of lunatic casts Priyanka Chopra in TWELVE roles in one film? But you know what? She wasn't bad! I didn't notice her doing much with her voice (except perhaps for the last version, which I won't name so as not to spoil things), but there was at least one impressive example of using mostly posture to create a character, as well as holding her face in different ways to project different personalities. It's only fair to give a lot of the credit to two sets of behind-the-scenes crew. First, the writers (director Ashutosh Gowariker, Naushil Mehta, and Amit Mistry, based on a novel by Madhu Rye) wisely made a few of her 12 roles little more than poses was and kept all of them short and one-dimensional. Their character sketches were very effectively presented by what must have been a huge amount of work and creativity by the wardrobe and makeup departments, who really made each of her characters look very different, sometimes down to eyebrows and I think perhaps fake teeth to change the shape of her lower face.

All of which is to say that I think Priyanka was able to carry these roles off because a significant proportion of each of them could be treated as modeling assignments, which should be up her alley. I don't mean to unfairly downplay what she actually did, but with a particular look for each character, complete with physical attributes and accessories, she certainly had a great start for making each woman distinct.

After I watched this, I remembered Amrita saying on our most recent Masala Zindabad podcast that Gowariker seems to have gotten bogged down by Lagaan into making films that speak to the Indian national character and that What's Your Raashee? was a look at the state of contemporary Indain womanhood. That idea did not occur to me at all while actually watching the film, I suppose because it wasn't the sort of visually noticeable tour that, say, 70s songs tend to have, with a village girl, a bharatanatyam dancer, a spangly sequined vamp, etc. But I think her point holds up, and it's interesting to me that the spectrum is seen through the eyes of a foreign-returned man, as though the writers really were trying to be ethnographic with an outsider-turned-participant-observer discovering that every Indian woman has something to offer, whether it is a desire to serve her country (the doctor), an artistic or creative side (several characters are performers of some kind), wealth (the rich industrial family), traditional knowledge (the astrologer), ambition (the wannabe model), principle (the exceptionally forthright one with a past her family wishes she would hide), etc.

More amazing to me, though, was that the male/outsider is not unreasonable in his judgment of any of them and he really does try to get to know each of them for who they are, at least in the short amount the structure of the story allows. He seems to want to do right by each of them, as well as stick to his own values, and that in itself makes this a noteworthy film. Hell, we even get a woman asking why it shouldn't sometimes be the case that the man follows after the woman's career choices! The film also presents the interesting question of what we would see in other people if they all looked the same. Of course, here they all look like Priyanka Chopra, but still - it's a point we should all consider in our image-driven world.

Harman Baweja was pretty likable in his role, far more so than his unconvincing turn as icky Karan in Love Story 2050, though Yogesh as an individual is very clearly not the point of What's Your Rashee? Being a blandly pleasant on-ramp into the spectrum of female characters seemed to suit him well enough. I also give the film points for being accurate about Chicago, down to the correct typeface on the University of Chicago sweatshirt that Harman wears all around Mumbai (though who packs a hooded sweatshirt for a trip to Mumbai?). As a lifelong Illinoisian, the only thing that made me want to jab somebody with a miniature Sears Tower was the talk about Chicago as the center of modeling in the United States. Here in the midwest, we like to eat. Is Priyanka destined to play models in films that know eff-all about modeling?

Also annoying: the smooth jazz opening song and James Bond titles-esque introductory segments to each zodiac sign that featured Piryanka in a spandex bodysuit slinking around with a symbol appropriate to each sign.

"Pal Pal Dil Jisko Dhoonde"

These had nothing to do with the story or characterizations and I wish they weren't there at all. A simple bit of text would have worked just fine and been less distracting. I don't think the cartoon-y look of the title on the film's poster works either, even when it features as the cover of a book Yogesh casually picks up that then, for no truly sensible reason, dictates the structure of the story.

Even with that much to recommend it on paper, What's Your Raashee? is just too damn long. Knowing there will be twelve Priyankas means you can count down the minimum amount of story left, and after about 150 minutes I lost steam and was worried the remaining women would get far more time on screen than I had energy for. I'm not sure what I would cut - probably the antics with the side characters and some of the songs. Actually, trimming the concept might be smarter - find some sort of system of sorting people that has only 7 categories, say. We can be thankful Gowariker hasn't tackled What's Your Myers-Briggs? Though it certainly did not leave me wanting more, once this movie ended, I realized that I actually liked it, and it has provided me plenty to think about in the two days since I saw it. Its relatively respectful treatment of female characters and acknowledgment of some sort of diversity, however filmified, makes it a standout in my film-viewing experience, and because I found those amazing feats in a place I least expected them, it's also a lesson in keeping an open mind.

[Note from Editor Self - so much for "mini."]

Sunday, January 09, 2011


What a difference some lightness, shadow, and cleverness can make! In some ways, Chulbul Pandey is a close cousin to the lumbering, grunting, glowering hero of Veer, but thank Helen above (as Arbaaz Khan did in the credits!) he seems aware of and completely comfortable in his limitations and context. Veer wants to be great and wound up an epic fail, but Dabangg wants to be a winking entertainer with a nice masala dash of something for everyone and does so gloriously well - so much so that as we all look back on 2010 Dabangg has obliterated Salman's poor personal pet project from our collective consciousness.

I watched Dabangg twice within a few days, and after the glee of the growling, flying, and silliness has worn off, the well-structured and -paced story remains. The second time through, what I noticed most was how the story shifted focus or a new arc appeared before I realized I was ready for that happen but without lurching or short-changing any ideas or characters. There's a brevity that, for me, kept tricks like Salman's line delivery, the heartless shouting stepfather, or yet more Matrix-y stunts from bloating into annoyances. The world of Dabangg is satisfyingly murky, setting up a hero of sorts that is so much more engaging than some of the perfect police-wallahs of masala of yore the film connotes (sorry, Shashi). Nobody in this film is perfect, and they provide an important relatability that supports all the dubious deeds and CGI trickery. For every time he is blunt and thumping, Chulbul turns around and learns a lesson, does something with real heart (standing by his mother, working to make his lady-love smile, forgiving his brother), or slays you with a flash of emotional turmoil.

I also loved how the villain's true nature was revealed slowly, starting with just a minor ego clash with our hero to classic criminal to political player to full-on evil just when it counted most. And as someone who doesn't particularly care about fight choreography, I was grateful that the brawls and chases were evenly spread throughout the film - and often mixed with humor that worked for me, most notably Chubul stopping mid-clash to shimmy to a baddie's cell phone ring. Bravo to the writers (director Abhinav Kashyap, who also worked on the enjoyable 13 B and dark and careful Manorama Six Feet Under, with a story assist from Dilip Shukla of Andaz Apna Apna), I say (with one caveat I will get to in a minute)!

I'm no particular fan of Salman Khan, but my goodness is he hilarious in this movie. I haven't seen enough of his filmography to know with certainty that this is self-parody, but his performance was full of winks at film heroes. He parlays his considerable screen presence to out-swagger an enemy who towers over him.

Sonu Sood is taller, shinier (SO SHINY), more handsome, and maybe even more sculpted, yet he loses. Welcome to Chulbul's world, b*tch.
And Inspector Tight Pants really sold the moves, too. I often find Salman's dancing a little stilted by his overbulked frame, but here it worked brilliantly - Chulbul Pandey absolutely would not know how to dance like Hrithik or Shahrukh and would do funny little moves that paralleled his funny little dialogues. Even head over khaki-clad teakettle in love in "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain," his lilting shuffle seemed perfect, full of that tiny spring in your step you just can't control when you're really happy.

If the fact that I loved Dabangg makes you wonder if a pod person is typing this, the following will sound refreshingly familiar: once again, I ask the writers "WHERE ARE THE WOMEN?" Nirupa Roy would be proud of Dimple Kapadia's turn as a Maa whose love for her sons leads her to bad decisions, but she was the only female character of sustained interest. Sonakshi Sinha's Rajo is quiet in an interesting way rather than a whimpering weakling and expresses herself when it counts,

but her fate in the film is more a factor of the men in her life deciding for her than her own will, and she basically disappears from the plot as the action ramps up towards the climax. Mahie Gill's character also does nothing but react to what her father and fiancé decide, and in her case it's hard to understand why she goes along with any of it since her love interest is such a dolt. I almost wonder if some early scenes of their love story were cut, so blank are both her character and the tone of their romance.

Prompted by Temple to explain where I think more female characters could have appeared, I propose an awesome female police colleague, someone like Tabu channeling Rekha - she could have gone undercover as Munni to trap the criminals! Or, maybe even more interesting, a sister for our 70s-style brotherly hate and love plot, a lazy pampered baby whose devotion to her father is stretched to fascinating ethical limits just as Makhanchan's was. No one would expect a Dil Se-style female mango-carrier! Even one major female player in the story would do little to dilute this testosterone-flooded film, so anyone who loved this mostly for its macho shenanigans would have little to fear.

Update to post (January 2012): I've just discovered a review of Dabangg that restates precisely what I don't like about how the women in this film are depicted. The author and I come to the film from different places and I am thrilled to see someone else, especially someone who is not demographically and cinema-background-ly identical to me, pin down the problems so well. Read Ashwin Pande's take on the film here.

Another quintessentially Beth-like complaint: Salman's love interest is 22 years his junior (
literally half his age!)* but the actor playing his mother is just 8 years his senior. YUCK.

Those are really the only things I didn't enjoy in Dabangg. The music works so well**, down to the snatch of "Emotional Attyachar" at the wedding; the Mexican western style theme and "Hud Hud Dabangg" pack particular wallop in the context of the film, perfect for Chulbul's macho-with-heart persona. The cast is a delight down to Amitosh Nagpal as Rajo's similarly sad and quiet brother and Chulbul's various silly colleagues. Even though Om Puri and Vinod Khanna are probably under-used, I wouldn't have given their characters more screen time at the cost of anyone else. And how funny is Sonu Sood? I haven't yet seen him in any of his amazing-sounding cartoony villain roles from southern films but clearly I must. All he has to do is stand there in a scarf and sunglasses and I laugh. I have a hard time getting past how much he looks like young Amitabh Bachchan, and in this film that similarity was smartly channeled into an angry young man gone very, very bad.

He paints Chedi Singh with that sort of disarming casualness that the truly psychopathic sometimes have, completely detached from the destruction and suffering they cause. The town itself is fascinating, full of nooks and crannies for discovery and open landscapes for reflection and peril - and how could I forget the lane of lanterns and neon lights to mirror the fireworks of romance?

Maybe my favorite thing about Dabangg is that all of this is done not only with characters and situations more complex than I expected but also with the kind and amount of self-awareness that I love. "These are the tools of our trade and we're going to have a blast playing with them," the filmmakers seem to say. And to my eye, they seemed to do so with a lot of thought towards what would make more interesting and satisfying experience for viewers than simplistic hero worship, parody, or re-hash/re-heat of R(ecommended) M(asala) A(llowance) of standard ingredients (Maa, family reconciliation, retribution of evil). Dabangg does all those things and ends up making something more. I can think of no better example of this kind of appreciative, joyful, exalting meta- than the Shirt-Off in the final brawl. In a victorious position, Chedi pauses the action to rip off his own shirt. The camera gazes upward adoringly at Sonu's remarkable torso as the actor holds his weapon in his teeth and then beckons at almost-defeated Chulbul to get up and continue fighting.

All I could think was "THIS CANNOT BE. SALMAN WILL NOT BE OUT-OFF-SHIRT-ED!" And of course he was not. Proving Chulbul's moral high ground even as he hovers near defeat, his muscles bulge out of his shirt and the winds of righteousness whip away the last symbol of constraint.
Post-modern hero zindabad!

* There is nothing Salman-specific about this complaint. It was gross in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Sawaal (Shashi opposite Poonam Dhillon), too.
** My opinion on the Self-Aggrandizing Item Number of 2010 Debate falls as follows: I prefer "Munni" for how it works and appears in its film (picturization and plot), execution of choreography, lyrics, and its gloriously lower and earthier female voice, but "Sheila" squeaks ahead as something to listen to outside of its film (singing and dancing to while doing dishes, that kind of thing).