Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Palate Cleansers: Costumes

Back when the Bollywood Fugly blog was more active, those of us who contributed to it often got accused of being mean-spririted, watching films just to laugh at their foibles or indulging too often in "so bad it's good." I think those of you reading this know me well enough to understand that was never a deliberate intention, but I can't deny that I sometimes take great pleasure in the, er, inventions of wardrobe departments across the subcontinent. I don't go looking for horrible costumes, but if they have made their way into a released film and I stumble across them, and they in some way delight or amuse or amaze me, then by Helen I am going to enjoy them. They are (or should be) as much a part of the context of what's happening in a film as set design, props, and blocking of the extras.

They have visual impact. They testify to great creativity. They demonstrate the ability of professionals to take an idea, often formed from or in conjunction with other elements of the film like lyrics, set, choreography, or plot, and running with it to glorious distances. At other times, they warn of the dangers of letting the lunatics run the asylum. But no matter what, the costumes that catch my eye are evidence of earnest attempts to hold up one of filmidom's cardinal rules: NEVER BE BORING!!!!! I admire and respect that, I really do.

ANYWAY. Costumes. Terrific or terrifying, bring 'em on.

I saw this one from Cocktail just today.
One of the pleasures of costuming is that it doesn't have to be complicated. A linen blazer and fuchsia and gold fringed scarf and voilà, the hero is suave, tinged with both traditional and western touches, and he is still prominent against that beautifully crazy and evocative background.

The first horrendous costumes I remember are from that perennially easy target, Disco Dancer.
Yet not only do I remember them, every time I think of them I smile with a happy glow of "Ohhh yeah, remember how amazed you were the first time you saw these? That was fantastic."

From Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kashtam, the most glorious array of polo shirts I ever did see.
My notes on this film indicate I saw at least 46 different shirts.

This must be on purpose. It must be about something, reflect something, tell us something? But what? It is a great mystery that I take no end of pleasure in mulling over. (And yes, I also assume it's probably product placement, but if so why so many of the same damn shirt? Why not also a hoodie here and there? A watch? A t-shirt, even?)

So that's the bad, the puzzling, and now the wonderful: from Elaan (1971).

These cleanse my palate because anything getting me down is replaced with sheer envy and a soupçon of lust and "Why am I not as fabulous as vintage Rekha? Why? WHYYYYY?" And then I get over that unanswerable mystery and just revel in how nice it is that these ever existed and were captured on film for the delight of all. Thank you, movies. Thank you!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Palate Cleansers: Soundtracks

Bluffmaster (2005), Vishal-Shekhar, Trickbaby
Seven years later and I still love every inch of it; it makes me laugh; it makes me cry; it makes me dance. Yeah, I'd call that restorative.

Love Sex aur Dhoka (2010), Sneha Khanwalkar
Kinda hard to believe all of these songs are by the same person, isn't it? And she can sing, too! AND SHE IS A SHE. One of my top soundtracks of all time is by a woman. This album reminds me why I, for one, am going to keep talking about how the relative lack of women in creative positions (among others) in Hindi cinema diminishes the whole industry. I have no idea if Khanwalkar herself is interested in such a fight, but I am.

Raised fist aside, which maybe it will be for good someday, this album is mindblowing—as standalone music, as complementary to what's happening in the film as you see it, as evocative of the film afterwards. As much as I love sassing around my living room to "I Can't Hold It Any Longer" (a lot), I will never forget what happened after this hilarious but discordant moment in the film. This album is a badge of the impact of good cinema, of being unforgettable. 

I haven't done a proper blog post on Love Sex aur Dhoka despite my huge respect and love for the film, but it features in the Masala Zinabad podcast on films of 2010 and in my piece in the Wall Street Journal India Real Time blog "Bollywood Journal" column on why I love Dibakar Banerjee's films generally.

Taal (1999), A. R. Rahman
What could restore faith in cinema like being swept into one's very own melodrama with rich and gorgeous music? That's how I feel whenever I hear even just one song from this album.

has some serious problems as a film (my complicated thoughts on it are here), but its music is flawless. Within the context of the film, it does all the right things at all the right times; even on its own (that is, just listening to it rather than watching it in the context for which it was creative), I find it beautiful and rich, in turns dramatic and simple, unusual and satisfyingly cheesy. For example, just when I am about to sigh "Okay, that's enough of that" during the rippling, 80s pop ballad piano of "Nahin Samne Tu," up sneak the orchestra and chorus and I am lost in the lushness. I can't pretend to know about the folk music of whatever mountainous region Aishwarya and Alok Nath are supposed to be living in, but it sure sounds like Rahman worked hard to create some interesting and distinctive sounds for that side of the story, then combining them perfectly with the bombast of the world ofAnil Kapoor's overblown, ridiculous music director (Vikrant). It must have been a dream script to score, giving Rahman the perfect setting to use whatever instrumentation and vocal styles he wanted. Vikrant would never say "no" to an approach or ingredient he thought might be dramatic or manipulative, and Rahman didn't hold back one little bit. Weird bird-like coo-coo-coo with synthesizers and strings? Yes! Chimes and water droplets while chords with a whiff of 70s bom-chicka-wow-wow pulse underneath before brass blares? Let's give it a whirl! Sunkhwinder Singh cutting loose on more than one occasion? Certainly! 

There is no restraint in 
Taal (though many, many very smart decisions), which is one of the (admittedly stereotyped) appeals of Bollywood in the first place. It blasts the fog off of whatever grumbles I'm suffering from. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Palate Cleansers: Songs

Because sometimes movies are blah or boring or bad, the wise film-watcher has at their disposal a stash of spirit-lifters and faith-restorers. Totally Fimi and I are hosting a week of "palate cleansers," starting today, and we invite one and all to join us in writing about and otherwise sharing movies (and bits thereof) that make us feel better.
Follow the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #PalateCleanser. I hope to put up a new post every day.

I'm starting off with a handful of songs because they're the simplest, most discrete unit of fillums I could think of.

"Meri Jane Jana (Oh Baby Don't Break My Heart)" from Mohabbat
So sunny and floral! Such cute smiling faces!  Such dorky, endearing choreography! And if Akshaye Khanna can keep up with Madhuri Dixit as well as this, then surely there is hope for us all. 

"Good Morning India" from Khushi
Palate-cleansing is not necessarily the same thing as happy-making, but my personal list sees significant overlap of those traits.
What I find so restorative about this picturization (not the music itself, really) is that somehow, somewhere, somebody pitched the idea of a song with Fardeen-Khan-based hero-worship-type shenanigans, including cheerleaders, breakfast foods, motorcycles, and Kolkata public transit, and they were allowed to go ahead with it and it worked really well for at least one viewer (i.e. me). Again, if somehow all of this did not end up a hot steaming dead mess under the wheels of a tram, then surely you and I can solve whatever is troubling us—and, more to the point, there is hope for cinematic endeavors everywhere.

"Tumse Milke Dilka Jo Haal" from Main Hoon Na
I try very hard not to think bad things about people who don't like what I like, but I'm willing to go out on a limb with this one and declare that if it does not tickle any part of your fancy at least a little bit, you might be a robot.
This song makes me proud to be a human. It is colorful, joyful, thoughtful, clever, and interesting. It is harmonious in many ways and on many spectra: within the music, within the visuals, within the choreography, and among them all. Creating something like this is proof of what people can do when we try. Like that! Wicked!

"Kehne Ki Nahin Baat" from Pyaar Kiye Jaa (aka The One You Knew Was Coming)
WHEE and SQUEE and WHOOPEEEEEE! I wrote a full post on this song back in 2008 if you need more tempting in words.
I, for one, cannot sit still. Won't you Shashi-shimmy along with me? 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jhinder Bandi

Update to post (July 25, 2013): I must admit that in the year or so since I first saw this film I have become borderline obsessed with it, watching it at least three more times, making gifs, enacting scenes for friends, etc. I think my fascination stems mostly from how this film works as a document in the great (if overblown) "Uttam vs Soumitra" debate that continues to this day in discussions of 60s and 70s Bengali movies. The two appear in several other films together, including at least one more in which Soumitra is the mustache-twirling villain, but of the pairings I've seen this is by far the most interesting, probably because it has Uttam near the peak of his matinee idol goodness and Soumitra young and hungry and chomping at the bit (as opposed to later films like Pratisodh, when he goes completely overboard and Uttam is literally and metaphorically bloated). It's too bad the film doesn't epitomize both of their acting styles; I would argue it is much more representative of the Mahanayak's easy charm than it is of Sonpapdi's soulful, heart-rending contemplation. And now that I think about it, it's hard to even conceive of a film that could have put both their wheelhouses to work, so to speak, unless it was designed to force a comparison of characters portrayed by actors whose strengths are so different. 

Anyway, as you read this, know that the film holds a strong attraction for me, and I can imagine that power continuing as I learn more about the two leads and 50s and 60s Bengali cinema in general. However, I still agree with most of the criticisms of the film itself, as a basically self-contained work, that you'll read here. 

[There are vague spoilers in this piece, but if you've ever read or seen a version of The Prisoner of Zenda, you already know most of them. The one major twist that I am aware of is marked SPOILER before it appears.]

If only the subtitle "It is very dangerous to be a fake king" were an accurate harbinger of the action and tone of Jhinder Bandi (Jhinder Bondi, pick your transliteration), a 1961 Bengali setting of The Prisoner of Zenda. (I figure most everyone knows the basic plot of this story, but if you don't, any number of helpful internet sources can assist.) Friend and film critic Manisha Lakhe warned me that I should never watch this with any comfy pillows or other sleep-encouraging items around, and she was right.

However, I doubt all of my problems staying awake were the film's fault. My copy of Jhinder Bandi from Angel Digital is not very good, borking out and causing much grief and confusion for about ten minutes around the hour mark. It also has lagging and sloppy subtitles. Worst, though, I don't trust that the DVD is entirely true to the film. Here's why: many of the references to this film I can find talk about a fantastic swordfight between good (Uttam Kumar) and evil (Soumitra Chatterjee), and in fact that's the reason I sought it out in the first place. Whether said comments mean "fantastic" earnestly or sarcastically, I cannot tell, because my DVD has no swordfight of any kind. 

It does have one of the most hilariously lackluster "fights"—oh feel those finger quotes, readers, feel them—I have ever had the good fortune to laugh at. Hero sneaks down a torch-lit hallway and villain, seeing hero's shadow on the wall, draws his sword. Hero pulls a gun and they exchange a few terse words as the shadow of villain's blade forebodingly crosses his face. Villain knocks the gun from hero's hand while hero forces the villain's sword arm away. Then they lunge into an awkward pose like a strangulation tango, with villain's hands at hero's throat and hero trying to grab the dagger from villain's waist. It's a battle royale of strained facial expressions. 
Fight like a Bengali thespian!
Samit Basu had told me this film has "the Chuck Norris/Bruce Lee showdown of Bengali cinema." Bearing in mind that my DVD had offered no previous altercations, leaving me to assume this is the scene he was describing, picture my delight at the idea of an epic confrontation imagined by a cinematic culture so highbrow and dignified, so enamored of emotion and examination, that its only wounds are sprained eyebrows and facial muscles. Granted I'm no expert in Bengali cinema and just indulging in stereotypes, but the only more fitting version of a smackdown I can think of is a poetry-off in which the hero is victorious because he has elicited more "Vah! Vah!"s of lament or patriotic stirrings from the audience. Update to post (June 25, 2012): it has been suggested by alert reader maxqnz that the more appropriate measure of such a contest would be that the winner is the first contestant to get so depressed he kills himself. If you have other suggestions for the quintessential Bengali cinematic death match, please add them to the comments.

(Yes, I have a lot to learn.)

Sadly, even pirates could not help me find the elusive swordfight, because all of the versions of this film I found online were ripped from this same Angel Digital release.* If you can find the scene online (or any others it seems I missed), please, please let me know.

Based on what I did see, though, I mostly found Jhinder Bandi uninspiring, though again, and definitively for the record, I do not think the subtitles did the film justice, even when they were spelled correctly (more on that in a minute), and will contentedly assume I missed fascinating, cracking dialogue. But...I just wish Manmohan Desai had done this, you know? Of course, I wish Manmohan Desai had had a hand in many other films, so that is perhaps not as harsh a criticism as it may sound.

[SPOILER] My wish for Desai was especially hard to dismiss once it is revealed that the convenient look-alike replacement-king is in fact the half-brother of the rightful king and the evil younger brother/prince who kidnapped him in an attempt to get the throne himself. When I told Zenda fan s3rioussam about this twist, he was outraged, but I'm just chalking it up to a general sense of "Hey, it's Indian cinema—of course there are long-lost brothers," though I realize that may be an irrelevant projection of Hindi masala onto Bengali literature and cinema (this film is based on a book by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay). [END SPOILER] This story should be rollicking fun—you can tell from the ingredients—and I saw so precious little sparkle in this adaptation. The costumes and locations are nice enough but not in any more notable a way than those in other princely adventures. The standout among them is a sort of lotus-base shower chair that Uttam stumbles across while exploring "his" new palace, with water jets activated by little foot-operated buttons.**
To paraphrase Bart Simpson, where's my lily pond with elephant sculpture?
Knowing full well I am risking pissing off a lot of people, all I can really say about Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee based on this film is that they are good at being various shades of smug, a characteristic that generally makes sense within this story, since the hero is a bit of a do-nothing rich boy from Kolkata and the villain is a scheming fencing champion with a precise little mustache.
During the SPOILER previously mentioned, Uttam's response to the dramatic news is just to chuckle gently. Surely that character would have been more disturbed with some feeling or other to discover that bit of information?  In addition to the non-fighting in this swashbuckler-implying film, there is also an amusing lack of equestrian skills. In an angry face-off between Uttam and Soumitra with the two men on horseback, neither actor can control his horse, resulting in constantly shifting blocking and hostile lines being shouted at each other's backs as one or the other of them tries to wrangle their mount back around to  actual face-to-face. I don't know why director Tapan Sinha didn't just reshoot this bit, preferably scrapping the horse idea and putting these two mighty thespians into positions in which they are in control and can use their physicality to more relevant, story-supporting ends. It's one of several curious choices the director made; another is a segment of the dialogue of the big finale being conveyed in voiceovers rather than actual conversation, leaving the actors little to do but stare dramatically. Several mentions of Jhinder Bandi online discuss whether Uttam or Soumitra walks away with the film; I vote Soumitra hands-down but mostly because the script gives him juicier things to do and he doesn't seem to be bored by the goings-on, which is not something I will say for Uttam.

Overall it's just so meh. The action is meh, the emotion is meh, the intrigue is meh (thus rendering it not very intriguing after all). The music by Ali Akbar Khan, though, is divine. Listen to this piece that runs under the credits. I love how the sounds of an actual train are coupled with evocative percussion and other more melodic instruments.

In fact, I'd say the background score is generally more engaging than what's going on on screen—which is a big yay for the composer but a big boo for almost everyone else.

For some opinions of people who enjoyed this movie much more than I did and who seem to know a lot more about Bengali films in general (and thus how this fits into that bigger picture), try the review and comments at the blog Old Films and Me. I shall leave you with some giggles, though. Please feel free to use the following to taunt your Bengali friends.
And then enjoy just a few of the many, many typos in the subtitles. There are some more at Paagal Subtitle.

* The ubiquitous corporate logo was actually useful for once!
** A quick and very tangential note inspired by my job, for which I have recently been researching shoes from various parts of the world: the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has padukas that have water valves that spray a cleansing blast with each step! Click here to see!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sassy Gay Friend talks sense into TMBWITW

(If you have no idea what I'm talking about, see the real Sassy Gay Friend on the Second City Network!)
Meet Mansi from Subash Ghai's Taal
She is caught between a quintessential rock and hard place for filmi heroines: two men who want to boss her around, exploit her, and calcify her as some sort of embodiment of extreme, outdated, and generally not very useful ideals of Indian-ness.
This fate could have been avoided if she'd had a Sassy Gay Friend.
Get your own at the Sassy Gay Friend Meme Generator!

Mansi wears an intricate beaded costume and sits in a director's chair at the edge of an elaborate stage filled with backup dancers. 
MANSI  (fiddling with a straw in her Coke bottle and staring wistfully into the distance)

Erupts out of a massive formation of backup dancers practicing their routine. Dodges high kicks and flames bursting from the machinery being wrangled by the special effects crew as he makes his way to Mansi.
(pointing in disbelief at the backing dancers' outfits, which just so happen to match his own black velvet one-sleeved leotard)  
Oh HELL NO! The boutique told me this was one-of-a-kind! I am so not shopping there anymore.
(to Mansi) 
What are you doing? What, what, what are you doing?

Virkant wants to marry me and I'm thinking maybe I should accept. 

SGF (skeptically)
Vikrant? Vikrant. You want to eternally bind your body and mind and talents to Vikrant?


SGF (interrupting)
The man who has ripped off your father's lifelong labors of love for music.


SGF (snatching her Coke bottle)
The man who has sold his soul to a corn-syrup-based multinational.


SGF (glaring)
The man whose idea of set design is pyromania.  

It is a little scary up there sometimes. 

Momentarily distracted by all the goings-on on stage. 
(stage-whispering to audience)
I can't fault his taste in costumes, though. 

Re-focuses on the problem at hand and turns back to Mansi.
Look, Lady Ma-Ma, all Vikrant wants is to use you, whether for financial profit or for his own deranged Svengali-ish egotistical fantasy. You can do better, and I'm not just saying that.

MANSI (brightening)
So I should go back to Manav, then?

SGF (shaking a spangled headpiece borrowed from a passing dancer at Mansi disapprovingly)

No. Bindu on a biscuit, child, don't you think anything through?
Looks upward.
Oh great Helen above, I'm going to need your help with this one.
Back to Mansi.
I mean, yeah, he doesn't have that creepy bad-touch uncle vibe, but it is not smart to spend too much time with men who want to preserve you as some sort of pure-as-the-driven-monsoon rural-makes-right untaintable source of principle and virtue, don't you think?

MANSI (thinking)

He's got a bad case of chai goggles. He is soooo not interested in you as a complete, contemporary person.

MANSI (furrowing her brow)
And his family. 

And remember: stalking does not equal love.

MANSI (giggling)
At least he doesn't have hair on his shoulders.

Feigns shock, swats at Mansi's arm.
And how do you know that, Miss Village Belle? 

MANSI (batting her doe eyes)

So dish: is it true age comes with wisdom?

MANSI (giggling)
Maaaybe. And Manav might have learned a thing or two while off in the evil vestern vorld.

SGF (clapping his hands with delight)
You big slut! Good for you!
Grabs Mansi's hands and pulls her out of her chair.
Here's what we're going to do. You're going to finish your video shoot—don't give Vikrant any room to come after you on legal grounds. That man is a shark, I can smell it from here. We'll have one last rummage in the costume closets while you introduce me to your gays.
And then we're going out for real drinks. 

Tosses the Coke bottle into the recycling bin.
Will there be any normal men at the bar? 


Oooh girl, I've been dying to set you up. I've got just the fella!

Monday, June 18, 2012

making passes at biceps and glasses

Today saw a hilarious collaboration on twitter to find pictures of filmi actors wearing what the Doctor (as played by David Tennant) calls "brainy specs" while also flashing their biceps. This all started innocently enough when I told my friend Chronicus Skepticus that one of the ways in which Ferrari Ki Sawaari is emotionally manipulative is by having Sharman Joshi look like a nervous, nebbish-y, rule-bound government clerk with big owl-y glasses but often doing so in short-sleeve shirts, thus also showing glimpses of his upper arms. I don't know if there's a name for the effect of this, but in my head it involved several variations of the sound "mmmm." I mean, I personally do not go for muscles, but I most definitely take a second look at glasses, and at least in the case of Ferrari Ki Sawaari, once I was looking, I started to notice other things while I was there, so to speak.

Anyway, I soon discovered that I was not alone in enjoying this combination. In the words of my friend, "Their combined charm is the flame to which I am drawn as a helpless, flappy moth." Soon much of my timeline was abuzz with submissions for a collection. Here are the best results.

It's surprisingly difficult to find filmi actors with both glasses AND exposed flesh above the elbow. Perhaps there is some kind of immutable law of nature that cannot be tampered with. I call this image "Damn you, sleeves!"

Sunglasses and biceps are much easier to find (and sadly do not qualify for this particular project).
One for Temple, one for me.

But we filmi fans are nothing if not diligent, and our group efforts yielded the following, starting with the usual suspects.
Actually, Emraan Hashmi is not at all a personal favorite of mine, and I think his hair looks terrible here, but I dig the stubble and most importantly his picture fit into this collage nicely.
Salman gets two pictures because, hey,  even I have some respect for the fact that he is Salman Khan.
Of course, the fella who is perhaps the patron saint of glasses and biceps, Hrithik Roshan version 2.0 in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, even provides the look in very delightful motion in "Ek Pal Ka Jeena." Speaking of motion, someone has thoughtfully giffed and tumbld Abhay Deol doing the B&G. The thinking woman's crumpet, as they say. 

Awww, Madhavan.

And because there had to be some howlers.
Close but no cigar, Govinda.
Got more? Send 'em in! A big, strong hug and long, meaningful look to everyone who has contributed. You made my Monday after a week of vacation an awful lot of fun.

Update to post (June 19, 2012): Here are the first 12 hours of photos that have been submitted or found since the post went up yesterday. Most of these are totally predictable candidates, and thank heavens for it. 
That's Siddharth, Ajith, Aamir Khan, and Abir Chatterjee (HELLO BENGALI CINEMA, THIS IS YOUR POST!)
Update to post (June 23, 2012): alert reader Temple found a song with lots of glasses and biceps: Mahesh Babu in "Ramudante Ramudayo" from Nijam! Oh Mahesh, you saucy thing, sleeves barely grazing your elbows.

Update to post (July 25, 2012): Bengali cinema comes through. Here's a selection from Satyajit Ray's Chiriyakhana.