Friday, December 23, 2011

in conversation with Minikhan: Mothra vs. Godzilla

When members of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit decided to play Secret Santas, I knew I would be in for a treat. Last week I opened my mysterious package to find Mothra vs. Godzilla (trailer here)—a film I knew only by reputation, and what a reputation!—courtesy of Monster Island Resort. A perfect emissary, I think, given that it features two monsters (or four, depending on if you count species or individuals), a very important island, and a sub-plot about a theme park.

Minikhan: People know that we know this isn't an Indian movie, right?
Beth: I hope so. I think they even know that we watch non-Indian things fairly often, though mostly of the tv variety, and we generally don't write about them here.
Minikhan: I haven't seen a lot of films from the non-subcontinent parts of Asia.
Nor have I. My dad may have taken me to re-runs of monster movies at Saturday matinees when I was young—this is the same man who took me to Monty Python and the Holy Grail when I was only eight—but I don't remember. The only Japanese movies I do remember with certainty are Funky Forest and Big Man Japan...which means that Mothra vs. Godzilla felt incredibly comprehensible. 
Minikhan: It's pretty linear, isn't it? An unusual but nature-based event occurs. Humans respond foolishly. Monsters representing nature's innate goodness and humankind's technological hubris show up and fight it out. Humans are saved by the nature/mother figure. The circle of life continues.

Beth: Not that I'm confident I thoroughly understood all of the film's messages, but my only lingering question is what to make of Godzilla himself. Bollywood-brain makes me think everyone is either heroic or evil. And I realized after reading about the film in WTF-Film [linked below], the story has at least one moment of showing a different interpretation of Godzilla's actions: on one of his rampages, he kills the most idiotic and amoral of the humans, making him a sort of judge figure
Minikhan: Should we assume Godzilla did that on purpose? He didn't seem to be seeking them out specifically.
Beth: I think for Godzilla it was a coincidence, but for the audience it's a nice bit of irony. It's fun to imagine Godzilla sighing "You morons. How many times am I going to have to reappear before you figure it out?"
Minikhan: Fellow MOSS agent The Horror said of Godzilla: "He suddenly appears, either awoken or created by an H-bomb. Tends to be rather grumpy in this part of his career." But that doesn't answer what his most fundamental nature is. Would he have been out to destroy human civilization if he hadn't been nuked?  
Beth: That's what I wonder. If he was just an innocent creature going about his business and we somehow turned him into a villain, I would feel really bad for him. 
Minikhan: But if his base instinct is to kill humans, it's okay to try to electrocute him in a giant net?
Beth: Well, no, but at least it makes some sort of pragmatic sense. A simple battle for survival is less ethically murky. Cruelly fighting something that we forced to be our enemy is more painful.
Minikhan: Godzilla has such a sad, desolate cry. It was hard not to feel for him. 
Beth! He does! Watching him try to free his tail from that giant metal tower was so heart-wrenching!
Minikhan: There was something dog-like in some of those movements. Dog slash dinosaur slash elephant slash AT-AT Walker. 

Beth: The contrast between the two creatures was so well done. Godzilla is dark, scaly, and heavy, while Mothra is fuzzy, colorful, and light; Godzilla just stomps around and roars, while Mothra actually thinks and has a sense of morals. But both are clearly so powerful. They make a great adversarial pair.
Minikhan: It's like Arjun Rampal and non-miniKhan all over again.
Beth: I assume Arjun is Godzilla in this scenario?
Minikhan: Mothra would make a good Bollywood mother: self-sacrificing for her children and the larger good.

Beth: What did you think of the musical numbers? I wasn't expecting those at all and was very pleasantly surprised by them.
Minikhan: The fairies from Mothra's island [Emi and Yumi Ito] have gorgeous voices! Clear and rich and the composer gave them some lush alto lines.
Beth: My only music-related complaint is that there should have been more time given to the islanders doing their big chant/prayer thing in their pseudo-Oceanic feathery outfits with the huge stone heads and colored lighting all around while Mothra's egg hatches and the grand, bombastic music plays.
Minikhan: That might be the Bollywood talking.
Beth: As is to be expected. But really, why hire and costume all those extras—and paint them orange!—if you're not going to use them?

Minikhan: It was all really fun.
Beth: And it had dil-squish too.
Minikhan: Do I sense many more hours of colorful puppets and people stomping around in rubber suits in our future?

Here's another review of Mothra vs. Godzilla by fellow MOSS agent WTF-Film. To read about my Secret Santa gift to the almighty Teleport City, the Hindi horror movie music compilation Bollywood Bloodbath, click here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"unmitigated trash": an opinion piece on 1970s films from Filmfare September 1–15 1978

I can count on one hand the number of points that I agree with in this piece by Tony Mirchandani entitled "The 70s—Cheap Stunts, Loud Music, Stale Stars"—and one of those is that villains often wear "silver, blonde, or even purple wigs." Some of the observations just don't hold up under the privilege of hindsight; for example, we would probably all agree that Amitabh Bachchan has had plenty of staying power, even if we haven't always applauded his deployment of it. Mirchandani's claim that films and audiences are wildly unpredictable is an interesting contrast to what I feel I hear critics of Bollywood (by which I mean people who don't like it or dismiss it, not the film critics) say in despair of "mass entertainers" today.

This piece appeared in the same issue of Filmfare in which I found the article on Vinod Khanna quitting the industry and the kerfuffle over the casting of Kranti (see them here). I have to applaud Filmfare for running a piece with such a crabby humorless lacking in imagination and capacity for joy divergent attitude towards contemporary popular cinema.

The first image shows the whole page; click on the second two to get images big enough to read.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Haatim Tai (1990)

Haatim Tai, which begins with giant glittery letters forming the production house emblem, whooshing stormy winds, and a booming voiceover, hints at certain pleasures from the onset: flying giants,
underwater pastel palaces,
fire-breathing mouth-shaped lair portals, that kind of thing.
With the caveat in place that Temple and I watched this without subtitles, I think it's as likely as not that the plot was selected and developed just to support director Babubhai Mistry's taste for the fantastic and very special special effects as the other way around. 

The basic structure of the story is the attempt by the titular hero (Jeetendra) and his bumbling buddy (Satish Shah) to lift a curse by undertaking a series of seven quests. As far as Temple and I can tell, the curse is the result of an angel/fairy (Sangeeta Bijlani, I think; here she is floating to the right of the chandelier) 
punishing a king (?) (Raza Murad) who tried to rape her (?). Curiously, the angel also seems to have turned herself in in stone/cement/papier maché, and with each successful quest a little bit more of her is restored to normal angelicity [note from Editor Self: that's not a word]. A bit of research indicates this plot is based on a Persian story, which you can read here

Perhaps because this is a Babubhai Mistry film, the basic nature of the quests and the details of their description are faaaar more engaging than how they are met. For example, one of them includes a bunch of corpses busting out of their tombs in a cemetery. 
"FINALLY!", you may be thinking, as I was, "A BOLLYWOOD ZOMBIE!" Sadly, it is only in the most technical—and least fun—way. After the dead rise, they gather calmly, dressed in tidy white clothes, and conjure up a picnic. One of them receives only blood and rocks (or some other inedible thing, I couldn't quite see) in his dishes, and he laments his past sins that have led to this horrible afterlife. Haatim Tai, who seems to intuit Allah's direct personal phone number, closes his eyes, stretches out his hands, and prays a solution. This pattern is repeated several times, sometimes in droopy or plaintive song, and I think it's basically safe to say that except in the sequences with the river nymph (some former Miss India or other, possibly Sonu Walia) and super duper baddie (Amrish Puri), you would not miss anything if you decided to check your email or get up for a snack once the setting of the quest is established.

Another problem is the title character himself. Haatim Tai has a bit of half-hearted dishooming but more often dispatches the obstacles by praying or singing earnestly. So religious is he that there's a song featuring imagery from several different traditions, including Noah's ark, the parting of the Red Sea, and what I think must be some kind of Mesopotamian deity, before settling on a Mecca being swarmed by elephants.
(Side note: this song ends with a pair of eyeballs flying out of actual footage of Mecca and landing on a small child who has been accidentally blinded.
Whoever this kid is might take the cake for least convincing temporary blindness in Hindi film history, but I am never one to scoff at magical flying eyeballs. Manmohan Desai taught me well.)

I suppose Jeetendra, who was in his late 40s when this film released, is as good a casting choice as any, but as someone who really enjoys him the 1970s and early 1980s, I have to wonder why anyone would cast him but not let him prance around and be sparkly, especially after clothing him in shiny purple vests and puffy shirts. He comes across as a bit of a preachy wet blanket, so wholesome and noble that his goodness is fawned over by most of the characters he encounters on the quests. Despite his role in the defeat or reform of evil and in several romances (including his own), the emotional impact of this character is basically nil.

Actually, none of the characters in Haatim Tai matters much, but I do wish I were sharper on my late 1980s actors so I could place all the different people who pop up with each of the quests. Amrish Puri as an evil emperor in the final quest is the best of them,
but I also liked Dara Singh as the ruler of a village held in sway by a giant in yet another lair with a mouth for an entrance, which is probably the central motif of this whole movie, if you care to assign such a thing,
and someone who sounded a lot like Rajesh Vivek as another repenting evil-doer.

What Haatim Tai does deliver, however, is many servings of very silly, usually very fun sets, costumes, and effects. Such as a "disco boob tube" (Temple's phrase) and a magical pendant that repels skanks (seen flashing red as its victim blocks her face).
A golden beehive hat big enough to house your cobra.
A vain woman cursed with gorilla arms and jaw (and also a feather duster on her head).
Dragon gargyles and stunts that re-earn Jeetendra his "jumping jack" nickname.
A battle between good and evil magicians whose accessories say more about their respective awesomeness than dialogue ever could.
Not one but two human-shaped furry things who walk without bending their knees. They teeter and toddle and sway back and forth, the Weebles of gorilla-suited henchmonsters.
Similarly choreographed evil trees!

Haatim Tai is simultaneously very good and really not good at all, creative yet lazy, generous yet cheap. For every moment that the evil emperor sets a fairy's wings on fire or people tumble down a giant tongue into another room of a lair, there's another that Satish Shah makes stupid jokes or Jeetendra wanders around the set looking sternly pious. For every amazingly glittery low-budget version of "Yamma Yamma" set in Amrish Puri's lair and sounding for all the world like he himself is talk-singing (I wish I could call it rapping),
there's an uninspired love song. It does not really gel, but that does not really matter. I'd love to know if any of the earlier Bollywood takes on the Haatim Tai story are stronger in overall acting and pacing (I've run across references to 1933, 1947, 1956, and 1971 Hindi film versions [the latter also by Babubhai Mistry], plus a 1929 Indian serial and a 1967 Pakistani film, though who knows if the sources are correct). For me, the problems and wonders of Haatim Tai were in fairly even balance overall—but I must also add that if I can have only one uneven but glorious early 1990s fantasy film set in a mysterious -Stan, I'm still taking Ajooba.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Moucho Prema: 1970s Masala Mustache Quiz ANSWERS


# 1 Shatrughan Sinha
# 2 Amitabh Bachchan
# 3 Kabir Bedi
# 4 Ashok Kumar
# 5 PRAN!
# 6 Shammi Kapoor
# 7 Shashi Kapoor

# 8 Vinod Khanna
# 9 Amrish Puri
# 10 David Abraham
# 11 Ranjeet
# 12 Tom Alter
# 13 Asrani
# 14 Keshto Mukherjee
# 15 Prem Chopra
# 16 Raza Murad
# 17 Parikshit Sahni
# 18 Sunil Dutt
# 19 Sudhir
# 20 Kader Khan
Bonus 1
bonus # 1 Rex Harrison in Shalimar
Bonus 2
bonus # 2 mask of PRAN in Chori Mera Kaam!