Monday, March 26, 2012

adventures sans subtitles: Kahaani and London Paris New York

I will neither confirm nor deny that there was a point in Mumbai at which we found ourselves so hot and tired and overwhelmed and frustrated by the city and the things we had thought we would do in it that we said "Screw it!" and spent ten hours at InOrbit mall. Whatever my activities that day may or may not have been, they did include seeing both Kahaani and London Paris New York, the former because it looked really good and the latter because it seemed like the kind of thing that 1) makes for suitable vacation-brain viewing and 2) the enjoyment of which would not be particularly impeded by my lack of Hindi.

I loved Kahaani while it was unspooling, but once it ended and I had all the facts of the story I was extremely unsatisfied with the way it had been set up. There was something about the tone of the truth, so to speak, as compared with that of the rest of the film, that did not work for me at all. The movie  was totally gripping and exciting, and the acting and characterizations were BRILLIANT. And don't you just want to sink onto Parambrata Chatterjee's shoulder on the bus one warm, glowing, tired night and take him home with you (your motivations for doing so are your business)? But I was disappointed once everything was in place. Whether understanding the dialogue better would have changed this, I'm not sure.

The other note I want to make about Kahaani is that of any Indian film I have seen it is the most amazingly evocative in capturing, generally, what it's like to be in India and specifically to find yourself arriving in a new-to-you Indian city. I haven't spent enough time in Kolkata to comment on how the film depicted that city, but the overall feel of the film perfectly expressed much of my experience in getting into and becoming even a little familiar with a new place. The people who will instantly help you and offer you kindness, the people who refuse to answer your questions, the people who explain at length why they're doing something different than any reasonable interpretation of their self-described duties would suggest; the crowds and isolation; the noise and music; the heat, the softness, the richness of the air; the dirt, the color, the discovery (for better or worse) at every corner.

As for London Paris New York: there are far worse things to do than stare at Ali Zafar for a few hours, even in the vaguely tiresome and uninspiring context of pretty privileged twentysomethings figuring out their love lives, but my biggest pleasure in the film was experiencing a singing voice that perfectly matches the actor's speaking voice and his whole persona/character. As expressive as some actor/singer pairs throughout Hindi cinema can be, there is nothing quite like letting someone sing for himself, especially someone who has the chops and knows how to sing. It felt so fresh and different. The other highlight is some probably unintentional hilarity in the painfully awkward choreography in "Ting Rang." Perhaps it was supposed to realistically suit the setting of our hero just wandering into a pub and being fawned over and forced to dance by a group of drunk English bimbos? Whatever, just watch it and laugh. Everything else in the film is forgettable, though in a very pleasant timepass sort of way.

Now, back to Parambrata Chatterjee....

Sunday, March 25, 2012

a few quick thoughts on Agent Vinod

I have no interest in and no respect for much of the wild critic-bashing that flares up when the professionals don't think highly of a movie that the rest of us seem to really like. Critics are part of the audience too, and many of the ones I've talked to, at least, are in their line of work sheerly because of love of cinema. The ones I read (and, go figure, I focus carefully on the people who seem to think before speaking) I give the respect I would extend to any friend or colleague, and even if I don't agree with them I try to follow their arguments and give consideration to why they thought what they did. So I'm surprised to find myself wondering why so many of them—and friends and blog-colleagues on Twitter, too—are so disappointed in Agent Vinod. Until the last fifteen to twenty minutes, I had a damn good time.

As for that: yes, the ending is terrible. Whoever is responsible for it needs to be given tight slaps and made to re-read some good books and film scripts to see how finales can go. That said, we've all seen countless Hidni films that falter and topple over throughout most of the post-interval run—"the Curse of the Second Half," as it's known around these parts—and still liked them overall, and we've probably seen even more films, particularly from the 70s, it seems, that simply stop with a brief, completely perfunctory end and do not bother with real conclusion, extrication, or even satisfaction. Agent Vinod goes the other direction and offers several decrescendos, and, for no good reason I can discern, doesn't do anything particularly interesting with any of them. The Bolly/Holly desire for romance creates some of the worst English dialogue I've heard out of Mumbai in some time; the spy film zeal for twists throws in wrenches that don't inspire; the James Bond love comes up with a brief but utterly plastic nod that adds nothing. Thank goodness the film actually ends with "Pungi,"* and its episodic, goofball vibe restored my mood about the film and had me dancing in my seat. So in all, if I gave points to films, in good conscience I could only take one off for the last chunk of AV because 1) seriously, think of all the crappy endings Hindi films have had,  2) at least the team tried, as opposed to just running out of steam and not bothering to put something together, and 3) the last flavor is one of pure energy, glee, and goodwill.

Here are the sections of Agent Vinod's dossier that impressed me most.
  • It's very stylish and looks terrific. I love the jet-set trappings of James Bond and this film set up and met those goals well. Remember all the praise that got heaped on Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for what it did with Spain? Apply it here for Morocco and then admire the textured interiors of the shady Riga brothel, the dining car of the Russian train, the detail even in the photos on the wall of Prem Chopra's mansion, the contrasts among the public, unused, and service areas of the Karachi hotel. (Though I'm sorry, there is no way in hell that the toilet of an Afghani weapons depot in "the desert of death" has toilet paper. Just no.) And the costuming! Classy and refined. Think about that gorgeous embroidered tunic Prem Chopra has, the huge gold and orchid stone cuff Kareena wears at the auction (or that orange ring with the metal snake winding across the stone—WANT), all the black berets just so on the ISI soldiers. As I tweeted from interval yesterday, Saif Ali Khan looks like a million bucks in those beautifully tailored button-down shirts and slim trousers. And yes, his face is a little weird (which I notice way more in these stills than I did in motion in the film), but they dressed him as befits a man his age and as the character's missions suggested. I will watch him adjust his tuxedo cufflinks, roll up his sleeves, or recline in a half-undone shirt all damn day, thanks very much, especially accompanied by that crazy creaky voice of his. His gay playboy look in particular is jaw-dropping. (A huge bravo for that, by the way—no judgment, no spectacle, no kerfuffle, just another thing he pretends to be in the name of mission.) The costume crew didn't skank out Kareena, either, which I appreciated, not only because it let the man-candy shine for once but because her role didn't require it. If you want a film to escape with, I can think of nothing richer and more polished to feast your eyes on for a few hours.
Guh. Pictures from the official site.
  • Overall excellent performances by the whole cast. I'll be singing Saif's praises in my Wall Street Journal India Real Time column this week so you can read my thoughts on him there [update: column is up here], and everyone else is solid too. The primary baddies are pleasingly inscrutable and unflinching, and Prem Chopra and Ram Kapoor have the right amount of fun with their silly-yet-menacing roles as links in their chain. I think it's fair to say Kareena is under-used, even as the only sizable female role in the whole film. More than the ridiculous ending, the film's greatest flaw for me is this non-use, non-presence of women. It's all too common in macho films from any culture and is maybe aggravated by the  stain of the sexist world that seems to be impossible to excise from the Bond franchise—though c'mon, AV, not even a Judi Dench-style commander anywhere in any of those half-dozen locales? FAIL! At least Dr. Bilal acts intelligently, speaks in whole sentences, and has a few shades to her character. She has as much backstory and development as even the hero.
  • The music is put to fantastic use. The songs make sense and work as well with the narrative running smack through them, I'd argue even more tightly than is typical, as they do on their own when listening to the soundtrack in isolation. To my surprise, "Raabta" is played totally against tone and is very funny in context, giving me a whole new way to enjoy it. "I'll Do the Talking Tonight" is fun in its own way too, and I love the wink (even if it's unintentional) of having a fleet of tackily-dressed Eastern European nightclub dancers actually in Russia for once, and instead of grinding all over them our hero has more important business to attend to. The soundscape of the film as a whole is so effective—taught, teasing, swimming in and out with ideas and locations.  
But most of all, it's fun! It's interesting! It's easy and cool! There are jokes without any straining comic relief, a dash of emotion without any pause in action, moments of patriotism without preaching! Stuff happens that rewards you for paying attention! Far from perfect, oh sure. Maybe this is just precisely my kind of escapism, in what's happening, who's involved, and how they're doing it. Shrug. I was entertained and, apparently, more than won over by the things it did right, enough that I am happy to ignore its woman-excluding, logic-bending, conclusion-deriding faults—standard contemporary big masala film problems—that I often can't as easily get past. 

* To my ear, Borobax Corp has a good case. Why is it so hard for composers to just acknowledge their influences and recognize them in the proper channels?