Saturday, December 29, 2012

mini-review marathon: the new-ish Hindi films, part 2

If  you asked after the first half hour of Shanghai whether I thought it lived up to the very high bar Dibarkar Banerjee has set for himself with his previous three films, I'd most likely have said no. But now that I've seen the entire film, I am as impressed with his body of work as ever. I say that even though Shanghai is not as much "Beth's typically preferred kind of movie" as his previous films, which I find much less consistently dark and depressing—though the horrible moments of Love Sex aur Dhokha are among the most despairing I've seen in Indian cinema—and I missed Dibakar's loose and silly side. Of course, that would have been wildly out of place in this story, save a few flashes of tension- or desperation-derived absurdity scattered throughout the muck and shadows.

I'm having trouble separating out the threads of Shanghai into an organized discussion. They are so brilliantly composed and interrelated, both in the story and in the portrayal of it, especially over the span of the whole film, that talking about any aspect of the film immediately brings ten others on its heels. Get Filmy's review evokes all of this really well. Her post's title, "Slow Burn," perfectly describes why what may seem like delayed gratification as you watch the film is in fact very smart pacing and unfolding of layers—and, in my opinion, mirrors the increasing determination and urgency of the characters to make their way through the mystery. The star of Shanghai is everyone who was involved in it.

Oh wait, though,  I must say this one thing: did Farooq Shaikh act the sh*t out of his role or what? For most of the film he uses his trademark quiet smileyness to just barely skim-coat his ruthlessness. If you didn't know what he was saying and just watched him, you'd think he was everyone's favorite uncle, the weakling, the clown you don't put any value on (indicated by filmidom's favorite shorthand of constantly eating, like the police chief in Dabangg 2). But then comes the fateful turn where someone gets leverage over him and he slowly, silently crumbles. Amazing. If you are a fan of Farooq, do keep an eye out for his new film with Deepti Naval, Listen Amaya, releasing February 1. (I saw it at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival in September and wrote about it here.)

For more of my thoughts on Banerjee's other films, try this piece I wrote about him for the Wall Street Journal

English Vinglish
This is another film I wanted to like, but a bunch of grating stereotypes and some unsurmounted cultural differences get in the way. Sridevi's performance as the flowering Shashi is flawless, and her character is thoughtfully written, but I want better for Shashi than a life in which she allows her horrendously selfish children and husband to treat her badly. Those kids are a walking billboard for what happens when you don't actually take on the hard parts of parenting, like saying no and trying to correct thoughtless behavior, and her husband is an entitled ass who clearly wants a maid rather than a partner.

As I watched this, I kept wondering if I was seeing a new version of the bharatiya nari emerge,* one who is involved in the contemporary (and admittedly urban and well-off) world enough to want to learn English to keep up a bit with her husband's and children's outside lives, but one who also fears that learning English (and by extension, focusing on her own mind and aptitudes) makes her selfish and whose stated desire for some respect is satiated by people merely not treating her like dirt for a few days. (This is all relative, of course; these characters have plenty of resources and no one is physically or emotionally abused.)

Like many of you, I cried several times throughout the film, mostly out of grief for how afraid Shashi is of experiences beyond her tightly defined comfort zone and for how small her wishes are yet how hard they are to fulfill. I also cried in frustration at how difficult it is to respect this character's choices and beliefs about herself. Her determination, her achievement, her commitment to English class and all it represents for her had me cheering out loud but her...her...I don't know what to call it, her seemingly willful ignoring of her children's bad behavior and her husband's disrespect of her as a human being make me crazy. Maybe English class is simply that and not particularly a marker of a changed role in her family? Maybe it is a sign of ability and not necessarily an indicator of will or prioritization? I also wonder if Shashi will still make fun of her servant's mispronunciation of English once she's home, now that she's experienced even more versions of disrespect herself?

A note on that. The stereotypes of some of the minor characters and incidents in New York reeeeeally bug me. The cafĂ© scene, while very effective at creating pain and evoking sympathy for Shashi, rings very false. The film shows other patrons complaining about the rude clerk, yet no one—no one in that room of at least 20 people—helps Shashi with her order or sasses back at the barista? It's such an important scene in establishing the plot that follows it that more care really ought to have been taken with it. And the gay ESL teacher? Yes, basic human decency was eventually shown to him, and we're all one small-world rainbow, let's congratulate ourselves, but why write him that way when the other gay character is...yeah, well, on that, he's an almost-silent black man. That whole ESL classroom is full of cheap-joke stereotypes; I wonder why, when other people in the film, like Shashi and her niece Radha, are written so nicely? Not as bad as Mama Jenny, but still. I expected better.

Anyway. For what it did well, like showing life's small but significant victories and the quiet pain of the people we take for granted, English Vinglish is very nice. But I cannot help wishing it had done more and done better, even if it would never dream of having Shashi make the radical decisions that I want her to make. Worse yet, since the film ends with her second-guessing her choice of reading an English (instead of Hindi) newspaper, I am not sure that Shashi actually got, or will continue to demand, the respect she says she wants. Does the film want its take-away to be "Know your limits"?

For your Bollywood trivia today, enjoy seeing Sridevi walk past a poster for a 1950s film called Mogambo.

Ek Tha Tiger
Soft-hearted Tiger should probably be nicknamed Puppy instead, so keen is he for his next assignment and so loyal to his favorite plaything (Katrina Kaif), even when she bops him on the nose with the newspaper and doesn't let him into the house when he's scratching at the door. To his credit, Salman Khan integrates the ass-kicking agent thing pretty well with the gentler, more boyish aspects of Tiger, creating a character who feels like a real, if still cinematic, person, rather than a hero with his fingers in too many different masala elements all in one film. And in that regard, I can see why some people discussed this film as a bit of a throwback to older masala, with the hero as a patriot, a defender, and a romantic—though an unconventional one in that he cannot fulfill all of these things at the same time, forced as he is to sacrifice either love or duty. This same dilemma is nicely mirrored at a smaller level by his sidekick (performed quite well by Ranvir Shorey, who, after bringing very welcome comedy to Heroine, I now want to see in a little role in everything), who has to chose between the motherland and friendship (maybe even hero-worship, depending on how you read some of their interactions).

HOWEVER. While Katrina Kaif's role was written to include more action, more "doing stuff," than things like Kareena's roles in other flavors of testosterone (ew, sorry) like Ra.One or Agent Vinod, and I applaud that, I have come to loathe her as a performer. I live in fear of Jab Tak Hai Jaan: La Kaif as the center of an epic love story? No. Just no. Whatever she's done to her face—it's a toddler/goldfish impression, IMO—severely interferes with the expressions that may have been in her wheelhouse (wheel cupboard?), and her voice just sounds dead. Her performances routinely strike me as empty, but maybe  that's why people like her. Is she Bollywood's real-life Bella Swan, blank enough to project whatever you want on to her? My other theory is that being sexually attracted to women is a necessary, though definitely not sufficient, condition to have substantial praise for her, especially when one remembers that pretty ≠ acting (or even star). Test it out for yourself and let me know whether it holds in your social circle. Of course, if you read Vogue India's fifth anniversary issue a few months ago, you already know that most of her screen appearances are actually robot replicas, which explains everything.

Ek Tha Tiger does well enough what it chooses to do. If I had seen this before Dabangg 2, you bet your bippy the latter would have suffered by comparison, even though they're not particularly similar films apart from being Salman Khan vehicles. But, like English Vinglish, I wish Ek Tha Tiger had chosen to do more. Is it Roger Ebert who talks about how unfair it is to judge a movie on what you want it to do instead of on what it wants and tries to do? Whoever says that, I agree, but I also find myself unable to work up enough investment in this particular film to rise to a more philosophically sound approach to discussing it. That said, my bar for Ek Tha Tiger was very low—I somehow thought it would be much louder and dumber than it was—so I was surprised and pleased by what it had to offer. A solid timepass that I am happy to have seen but am happy not to own on DVD.
Not as cute as the sloth, but it'd still make a good photobomb.

* On the Masala Zindabad podcast, we did a four-part series on Bollywood's take on the bharatiya nari and iconic female characters over the decades. The posts, which include mp3 files of the episodes, are here

Sunday, December 23, 2012

mini-review marathon: the new-ish Hindi films

It's one of those spells of spending more time seeing films than thinking and writing about them. To address the imbalance, there will be a series of short reviews on the last dozen or so things I've seen that didn't get written about elsewhere, grouped into the user-friendly, subjective, and highly unscientific  categories of new-ish Hindi films, prime vintage Hindi films (that's late 60s through early 80s, if you're new around here), and old-ish Bengali films (Soumitra and Uttam at or near their peaks).

Today's features: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, Talaash, Barfi!, Cocktail, and Aiyyaa.
The last of these is not, in fact, "mini."

Ladies vs Ricky Bahl
I enjoyed this while watching it, but a month later I hardly remember it. For a movie with multiple major female characters and a hero who doesn't get as much screen time as heroes generally do, I maybe unfairly wanted more GIRL POWER! from this movie. Filmi Geek discusses the niggling "Oh but wait, it mostly hinges on the man after all" problem that I didn't really notice while the film was in front of me. I do really appreciate that Anushka Sharma's heroine's superpower, so to speak, is selling (or conning, or convincing, whatever you want to call it), which is such both a timeless human tendency and a pleasingly modern, practical, and brain-dependent ability for a female romantic lead to have.

And speaking of unconventional female leads, Parineeti Chopra's portrayal of an unglamorous, kind of cringe-inducing loser in love is noteworthy, as is the fact that a major character like her is written, and with depth, into a mainstream Hindi film—and she even survives the film without a makeover and the approval of a conventionally handsome man.
Actually, now that I think about it, the other two lead woman are also a little unusual, one lonely and reserved, the other ambitious and willing to gamble millions on a project intended to advance her career. Yes, they are women who get tricked, but they're also women who have desires that make them vulnerable and thus exposed enough to be tricked, and I'm so happy to see that instead of women who are passive in their own heads or in how they interact with the world. 

Talaash is a much stronger film before its twist is revealed. My problems with the twist are the realities that the plot wants me to accept. On paper they strike me as kind of silly and, much more frustratingly, a cop-out, writing-wise; additionally, the melodrama that accompanies them is escapism of the highest order and jars with the rest of the film. Yes yes, melodrama and escapism in a Hindi film are quite the done thing, but in this case they do not at all suit the careful, detail-rich world that the film has so beautifully and poignantly created up to that point. The twist particularly irritates me in relation to Aamir Khan's character, whose arc has been driven by investigation and fact-finding. I can accept that the filmmakers may be wanting to contrast "the real world," embodied by detection, with emotional realities, especially those spiraling outward and inward from tragedy, but...well come on. One can set up contrats while still staying on the same planet. And what happens by the end of the film, to me, just undercuts the characters' suffering and very hard work. 

Let me put it this way: the audience here ("micro-urban" college town, midwestern US) laughed our heads off when the twist came. Surely that's not the reaction Reema Kagti had in mind. 

But otherwise, I love Talaash. The performances are outstanding across the board, as is all the direction given in creating the supporting words, appearances, and behaviors. I desperately hope that this will remind people to cast Rani Mukherji in pretty much anything. I remember reading quite a few reviews of No One Killed Jessica that were not in favor of her attempt there at dogged and upset; I liked her in that perfectly well and feel that Talaash proves that she can embody characters full of maturity, sadness, and determination. (Now if only there were more such characters to perform.) And Kareena! Child, bless you. When you are rising to the challenge of a substantial and interestingly written character with a director who clearly wants your best, you are such a treat. And the look of this film is so impressive. I certainly do not want to live in this world full of grimy secrets and horrible people, but it is a joy to see. The music too works so well. Everything works so well except for the peculiar and unfortunate way that the expressive carefulness of the first two thirds is undone. 

It might be because I have recently re-watched Black, or maybe it's just impish Ranbir hangover from Saawariya all those years ago, but Barfi! somehow reminds me of what I wish Sanjay Leela Bhansali would do. It has much of his delight in visuals—perhaps not as flat-out beautiful but certainly as detailed, colorful, and magical—and none of the self-indulgent nonsense that has made me run screaming from his last few films. Barfi! maybe a fleeting pleasure that melts away as you enjoy it, as a friend on twitter said, but it's perfectly clear that a lot of thought and effort went into creating it. 

Regular readers know I am no fan of Priyanka Chopra, but both she and director Anurag Basu deserve credit for making me forget whom I was watching. I'm beginning to think it's no coincidence that the films in which I genuinely like her performances (7 Khoon Maaf, What's Your Rashee) involve significant modification of her physical appearance away from blandly pageant-queen pretty (hair, face, clothes, mannerisms), as though maybe she needs those more blatant cues to prompt her into acting. Ranbir Kapoor can do no wrong on screen in my book, and as an actor I think he has left all of his peers in the dust. 
Significantly, he has also long passed them in his courage in choice of roles (and I assume he is offered projects that other people are not), and it is no small part of why he has been able to prove his acting talents in ways that, say, Imran Khan has not quite yet achieved. Some of what he has to work with in Barfi! may be derivative, but he still makes the material as charming as can be. I tend to have a short fuse about copycatting in Hindi films, but for some reason here I just thought "Well, what's the difference between him aping Charlie Chaplin and him aping decades of Hindi film heroes before him?" and decided to put that aside (though only regarding performances—the scrapbook approach of parts of the script still troubles me). And how fun to see Haradhan Bannerjee in his grandfatherly protector role here after things like Kapurush and Shakha Proshakha!

Another thing to like about Barfi! is its truly delightful use of manic pixie dream____s, who are much more tolerable when they are matched with each other (especially in a historical and sort of fairy-tale-like setting) than when they monstrously devour "normal" people in their very special paths of glitter-caked wisdom-imparting destruction. Not that either Barfi or Jhilmil do that, which is another strength of the film: the script just lets them be people even though they're different from almost everyone else. It is a sweet and believable love story, and while I am disappointed for the other leg of that love triangle (the slightly reserved Shruti, in a sad-eyed performance by Ileana that suits the role), I think her mother's advice that Barfi could never have given her what she needed is correct (if depressing). Shruti never gets what she really needed in her love life, and it's hard to know if being with Barfi would have been more distressing than how she ended up. 

Honestly, I don't know what to make of this film. Like Talaash, everything in it came together for me quite beautifully and effectively (music, costumes, sets, locations, performances), yet I'm not sure what is left after viewing. And maybe that's a perfectly fine outcome for a film that is a treat to consume? 

Oh my god what a train wreck. I wanted to like this, I really did, partly out of love of Saif Ali Khan and partly out of trust in Dolce and Namak's awesome piece on why the story is not the regressive virgin/whore dichotomy that many people seem to think. After viewing, I say with confidence that my faith in one of those was well placed. I would watch Saif in anything but he just cannot make that character work. However, that character is an asshole and really should have been the one hit with the car, preferably leading to a blank slate of amnesia if not actual death, so I'm not sure what other actor could have done anything better with him. As to the other draw, I agree 100% with everything Dolce says. 
The important and substantial relationship in the story is between the women, and if you think about who they are as people, and how they do and do not change in the film, the attacks on the story as regressive for "rewarding the good girl" don't hold up very well. And you know me—I looooove to call representations of women in Hindi films regressive, but I just don't think that's terribly fair or relevant in this case. I personally would have MUCH preferred that their story was told in some other way that had much less, or even nothing, to do with Saif's character. But this is Bollywood, so there has to be a big-name man for anyone to give a fig about it? I would also prefer that "slut" and "virgin" could be retired as the necessary connection and lazy shorthand, in both creating and interpreting characters, for "messed-up, messy, unpredictable, and brash" and "healthy, stable, and scared," but no one consults me about these matters. 

However, I also appreciate some of the discussion that thinks the film is problematic in its depiction of female types, and Shoma Chaudhury's piece in Tehelka is especially good. I am interested in any argument that emphasizes the influence of films in culture and behavior and that cinema does not exist in or communicate to a vacuum.

I asked on twitter if anyone could pinpoint what exactly went wrong in this film, and among the responses saying, basically, "How long do you have?" I was also sent Rituparna Chatterjee's list of proposed and much-improved alternate endings for Cocktail, which are all very amusing indeed, especially #6. Heehee.

In the coming weeks, you will hear from me in multiple places about my year-end lists, so I'll try to keep the raving brief here. This is very likely going to be my favorite film of 2012 unless the DVD of Shanghai somehow dethrones it in the next few days. To me this film is basically perfect, from concept to story to execution at all levels. It is clever, thoughtful, funny, and entertaining, and it makes several very interesting points, many of which are important and seldom seen elsewhere. I'm even tempted to call it revolutionary. Not only is this a relatively mainstream Hindi film that is told from a woman's point of view, it is centered in her desires—and not just the romantic and sexual ones, either, though they are the easiest to discern visually. 
As in Kahaani, Aiyyaa gives us not a heroine but a female hero who loves boldly, strikes out on her own, adds her own image into a giant collage of movie-star cut-outs that is the canvas of her dreams, and, in sort of an conceptual collision with the idea of "item girl," shakes her moneymakers for her own pleasure and her own imagined gaze. This is a story of a woman breathing, finding the open spaces she has identified as critical to her self-defined existence. This is a story of a woman who realizes it is a very sadly unique thing for a man to ask her her opinions or interests, but she also realizes that those questions alone are not enough for a partnership. 

Although I have no idea if this was part of the point of the film (but surely it is), it is a perfect IN YOUR FACE to conservative players in the film industry who cede all drive and all power to men. Female desire and female control are pushed to their logical, if ridiculous, extremes, as seen in Meenakshi's friend Mynah's obsession with John Abraham (thanks again to creative paper cut-outs, her doorbell is just millimeters away from his ding-dong) and her sudden pouncing on Meenakshi's brother. This is exactly what odious comic side plot uncles have been doing for decades, and yet it totally works for her, giving her the happy ending she clearly knows she deserves. And her happy ending is with the kindest person in the film, the young man who devotes his life to taking care of the creatures who are the millennia-old symbol of companionship, trust, and love. 

Aiyyaa is also the perfect complement to Talaash in testament to Rani Mukherji's capabilities as an actor. Between those two films, she's proven herself in expressing and eliciting a range of basic human emotions of grief, joy, love, resoluteness, etc. And as in Barfi!, the absolutely stunning visuals (watch for Meenakshi's yellows and Surya's rich blues—and where and when they appear together) and sound of this film nudge it towards a fairy-tale world where amazing things, like a woman pursuing a man before he has sanctioned her interest with his own, can happen. Among other tropes Aiyyaa merrily flips over as it skips along include parents knowing best, brothers protecting sisters, dark skin and cultural differences being unattractive, and wealth or "stable" careers like engineering and business as necessary for approval or adulthood. It does something slightly different with "stalking=love," letting the object of the attention choose when to get involved and thus retain some power. The male lead is quiet and mysterious throughout most of the film not because he is negligible (far from it) or because the writers are too lazy to create a personality for him but because the story is actually about Meenakshi. IMAGINE THAT.

Two more points before I keel over. First, I love how in "Wakda" Surya just stares at Meenakshi as she loons on in her typical way, and then he breaks out into a huge laugh and gestures to her as though to say "Look at my fiancee! Isn't she awesome? Isn't she hilarious? I LOVE THIS WOMAN." That is the love of understanding someone, not just of lust or convenience or pleasantries. Second, even though Alice in Wonderland is the novel the film namechecks, I could not stop thinking about Pride and Prejudice. The fact that the movie is from the point of view of a woman is a nice Austen-like feature, to be sure, but there is also: a central young woman who does not take kindly to attempts to restrain her values; the gentle pressure of marriage, embodied by a loose-cannon mother who is left mostly unchecked by a quieter father;  and a Darcy-like hero who is tall, handsome, taciturn, and seems to take little notice of our girl but who has secretly begun appreciating her spirit. 

Phew. I have so much more to say about Aiyyaa, but I'm breathless and should save raving about it for the other imminent projects. ShanghaiEnglish Vinglish, and Gangs of Wasseypur are waiting. What an interesting year this has been! 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dabangg 2

When I was a Brownie scout, we played a game called "Strut Miss Lizzie." People pair off and form two lines facing one another, with the pair at the top of the lines strutting—preening, hopping, grooving, moving in whatever ridiculous way she chooses—through the aisle made by the rest of the participants, and then when she finishes her partner imitates her. As each pair takes their turn, the rest of the players clap and sing a repetitive yet catchy little ditty that goes "Strut Miss Lizzie, strut Miss Lizzie, strut Miss Lizzie, all the day long. Here comes another one, just like the other one, here comes another one, all the way home."

You see where I'm going with this?

Dabangg 2 is no more and no less than a copy that is not as crackling or creative as the original. I love the first Dabangg (writeup here), much to my surprise, but somehow this one just did not have the same strut despite trying very hard to have exactly the same strut (summarized with perfect succinctness by Aniruddha Guha in DNA), complete with the familiar music and dance moves, known faces, and in-story audience egging it on. I don't know if that's because it's so similar that it felt like an uninspired repetition or if this particular province of Salmanistan is not a place I really need to revisit, preferring to leave my happy memories of the first trip unperturbed.

Before the Bhai-tards feel it necessary to threaten me with rape in my own comment section for not saying 110% positive, all-caps-y things about 110% of the aspects of this film (as one of them has done two at least two female writers), let me just state clearly that I do not dislike Dabangg 2. It is a perfectly enjoyable in its own particular and expected way, often funny, occasionally sweet, and never challenging way to spend an evening. Wait, why am I bothering? Do Bhai-tards—SRK nuts, Kaka cuckoos, etc.—actually read? Anyway.

Writer Dilip Shukla, who also did the first Dabangg, really flubs two characters who should have been significant but end up wet noodles not worthy of being in a movie like this. Sonakshi Sinha's Rajo is a pouty, pointless housefrau who adds nothing to the story or even the overall vibe of the film. Being easily irritated by basically nothing and then easily placated by is not the same thing as a personality for a grown woman. The only other female character who has more than one scene, a random young bride-to-be (Sandeepa Dhar), is even more the standard-issue object of villainy.* Why are these characters even in the movie, except to be the medium through which the villain pisses off the hero? Watering down Rajo makes Dabangg 2 even more pathetic when it comes to female characters and even presence of women than the first one (which was my only significant problem with it), despite two competent item girls who in their songs contribute way more to the film than Mrs. Chulbul. At some level, though, I'm glad Rajo at least reappears, simply because I appreciate the attempt to provide continuity with the first installment (unlike the Munnabhais, where the darling wife from the first seems in the second never to have existed) and, more importantly, to keep this facet of Chulbul's emotional life intact. With the exception of his bonding with his step-father, Chulbul's love stories (wife, brother) seem perfunctory.

And Prakash Raj's villain. Man, what a waste of an actor who deserves a much juicier role than this one.** Since a hero is only as good as the villain he opposes—and I think it was in this podcast about Magadheera that Sujoy reminded me of that important tenet of crafting stories—Chulbul was done serious disservice by the writing of Bachcha. Specifically, I wonder if distributing the political, moral, and physical evil across the three brothers was a mistake, especially as none of them proves brilliant or scheming. They're just cardboard bad. There is nothing about Bachcha and his crew that is remotely dangerous to Chulbul outside of his duty to community safety and security, which is why we only get the slow-mo run of anger when things gets personal. It might also be why Salman's shirt is torn off by the guy he's fighting instead of whipped off by the winds of righteousness as in the first film. I'm sorry, but that is so not as cool.

Chulbul and his step-dad are the highlights of the movie for me. To his credit Salman seems to have fun doing this film, mostly by reliving the first one. He's strut-Miss-Lizzie-ing with himself in a pocket mirror (that could be the signature non-dance move in Dabangg 3). I liked him most in the self-image-teasing "Pandey Jee Seeti" and some of the choicer one-liners to criminals or his police posse, and the adorable little embarrassed or blushing chuckle.*** Vinod Khanna's role is as disposable as any of the others, but the son and new dad scenes are warmer than any of the other family interactions (despite tears shed over flashbacks to badly behaving Makhanchan from the original)—and as a big fan of Vinod I indulged in imagining the film back in time 35 years with him as Inspector Tight Pants, playing pranks on Pran or Iftekhar. When Inspector Amar walloped Anthony in the street, he definitely would have bounced off the ground just like Chulbul's victims.

It's almost as though the filmmakers decided that their approach to "variation on a super-duper successful theme" was to amp it down, but, in this case, somehow less is not more. I respect that they didn't ramp things up further (louder, grosser, deadlier), and I wouldn't say Dabangg 2 is exactly resting on its laurels. Mostly I want to send the script back to the drawing board, cutting out things like Makhanchan's love life and that tepid love song that puts Chulbul and Rajo on a road trip to a patisserie, and focus instead on ensuring Rajo has a glimmer of her former personality and giving Chulbul the arch-villain he deserves, someone worthy of his power and style. Everyone says, and I can easily accept as true, that as far as the box office goes, trifling details like plot and characterization and pacing don't matter when Salman Khan is fronting a near-duplicate of one of his own blockbusters. But I wonder if our future selves, who have the luxury of not worrying about the film's finances, will agree. In ten years, is this going to be the Salman Khan film we love to re-watch, or will Dabangg 2 wind up as an also-made, sandwiched between the actual glee of its predecessor and Wanted and the so-bad-we-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it-actually-exists Veer?

* At some point I will snap and write an indignant letter-to-the-editor style missive raving on about how the people who make southie-style masala should just stop this weak facade of pretending the heroines are actual people and simply make them bags of cash with a rupee sign painted on them, like from an old-time-y wild west matinee short, and be done with it.
** Was Prakash Raj dubbed by someone else for this film? His voice doesn't sound like I remember, and there's something not exactly right about the way his words sound when compared with what his face looks like.
*** Because of this laugh, I started calling him Inspector Muppet Chuckle in my head, just like I called him Inspector Tight Pants in the first film. Seriously, he sounds endearingly just like Ernie.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Heroine: Are You F*cking Kidding Me with This Sh*t?

What angers me most about Heroine, like Fashion before it, is that Madhur Bhandarkar expects us to buy into the idea of these almost manically ambitious women who will sacrifice all aspects of their well-being for success in their career yet they behave as though they know absolutely nothing about their chosen industries. If you pay any attention even to stereotypes about the Bombay film industry at all, you already know far more about it via gossip blogs and Filmfare interviews than the lead of this film seems to. I just cannot believe that someone who's been in enough films to be getting non-newcomer awards, as Mahi does, or to have spent some time as a top heroine, which Mahi is implied to be, would be surprised by the situations she finds herself in. "Journalists" are only interested in the gossip about you, not in your actual work? NO. The "edgy," "arty," award-winning Bengali filmmaker's project doesn't get released? GASP. Your hero co-star demands you be all but cut from the film when you refuse his advances? UNFATHOMABLE. Your hero boyfriend sometimes has to do racy scenes with another actress? HOW CAN THIS BE. His actual wife is rude to you in public and doesn't want you hanging around her child? UNREASONABLE B*TCH. 

Why won't Bhandarkar write women who are both driven and intelligent—or at least not oblivious? It may be true that if characters in fictional stories only made good choices, and they were surrounded and influenced by people who only made good choices, then we'd hardly have any drama at all, but Bhandarkar seems to be out to try to prove that only bad or ignorant decisions are worthy of showing. There are situations in which Mahi knows precisely what's going on beneath the surface yet willfully submits to the long-term negative consequences for short-term gain, mostly when it comes to actor boyfriend Aryan, whom she lets play her repeatedly. [Editor Self: Hey, if Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife is immune to "G. SUS. H. CHRIST girl, you know better than to let this horror story back into your life!", then what hope is there for someone like Mahi?] Some of her bad decisions are then rewarded, like letting her boyfriend film them having sex or sending federal authorities after a top rival who has as much, if not more, power in the industry than she does. And then the writers turn around and punish Mahi for one of the few wise choices she makes, allowing herself to open up professionally and personally with a female colleague who then immediately abandons her. 

Even if I could put all this aside for a moment and just let Bhandarkar do his "I am so hard-hitting and clever showing you how uniformly, one-dimensionally baaaaad the film industry is!"thing, it's all a colossal yawn. Selfish, petty, and scheming are one thing, but boring is quite another, and Heroine is terribly dull. There's very little heat in any of the sex* and no pleasure in the debauchery**, the dialogue is cheesy as can be, and most of the people delivering it are godawful. With the exception of Kareena Kapoor in the lead, Arjun Rampal (as her sometimes boyfriend), Ranvir Shorey, and Shahana Goswami (as the director and special appearance in the art film, respectively [of course the woman isn't the director, silly!]), the acting from everyone else is meh at best and usually much worse. I mean, somehow even Helen is not very good! How did this happen? On paper it's great to have a film filled with lots of little roles, almost a distributed Greek chorus of commentators, but somehow all of them are terrible. Like this lady. I love that she happens to be doing crazy claw hands as she's talking about Mahi being a loon. Top fake television journalism, this.
I've liked Divya Dutta just fine in other things, but she too seems to have been given, and spiritedly followed, the "hammity ham ham!" directive. 
And this guy. Let alone what his role actually involves, which is of the "everyone knows non-heterosexuals are stone cold sluts" variety, he can't even deliver his fewer than ten lines in a way that didn't make me want to cover my ears. 
In another case of being given nothing to work with, Mahi's sassy gay friend isn't even any fun. Just a flat, useless stereotype.

As it should, this film absolutely belongs to Kareena. All comparisons to anyone else in the film are in her favor, to be sure, but I genuinely think she did a great job. Kareena's expression of Mahi's thoughts and feelings is very watchable. If all I saw in the film was Kareena's face, which has more depth and nuance than all the other aspects of the film put together, Mahi would be oodles more sympathetic ("empathetic" was never on the table with a story like this). It's not flawless, but it's convincing, which is faaaaaaaar more than Priyanka managed in Fashion. 

Unfortunately, what Kareena is never given is any kind of motivation with meat on its bones. Why does Mahi want to stay in this industry after all she's been through? Why is being a heroine important to her? Why does she never consider pursuing "success" in some other aspect of films (let alone another industry) even though we've never heard a peep about her desire to act? Mahi occasionally worries that she isn't a good actress, but that's the closest we get to any kind of thought or care about her work.  She signs the art and small indie films when she's desperate, not because she freely chooses to strike out on a different path.  Bhandarkar apparently does not care to tell us about that, just like he didn't really give any rationale for the lead in Fashion. That might be the most significant problem with his writing: he gives himself opportunities to write dimensional, powerful, complicated women, and then he doesn't follow through. It's all such a disappointment. 

What the script does do, much to my surprise, is give two very strong moments, made all the better by Kareena's performance, of true emotional connection with other female characters, both of whom are also actors. That Mahi has real, substantial relationships with people who can understand her yet aren't exactly her peers (one, played by Helen, was in the industry long ago, and the other is in Bengali art films instead of Hindi masala) indicates to me that perhaps she needs to have a long, hard think about the world she's choosing to be a part of. I've heard people talking about how Mahi's sexual encounter with another woman is this film's equivalent of Fashion's assignment of the Indian woman sleeping with a black man as absolute rock bottom, but I don't think that's the case at all. Mahi and Promita actually share a very deliberate, relevant relationship. "I've been working with this woman for weeks, we're in similar careers, opening up is part of our jobs, and we also have a lot of fun together" is not the same as "one night I was so stoned out of my mind I slept with ZOMG a black man!" I was honestly sad when Promita got awkward and bailed; Mahi desperately needs a friend who respects her and has very little to gain from her celebrity, regardless of that person's gender or their romantic/sexual involvement.

Similarly, the final scene involving Helen's character is very moving (I won't say what it is so as not to spoil it, particularly because it's so effective), and I think Kareena is to be praised for giving Mahi's breakdown so much emotional impact without histrionics. Why wasn't the Bhandarkar who wrote and directed those moments involved in the rest of the film?

But hey, at least Heroine shows us Helen.
It also echoes back to the greatest dialogue in Fashion, if not in fact the whole of Hindi cinema ever. [Editor Self: HAHAHAHA! KIDDING!] Early in the film, a rival is trying to beat out Mahi for a jewelry endorsement, and the name of that jeweler is, to my extreme glee, Panache.
And that's a good place to stop: the best part of this film is that it reminds me of the most howlarious pinnacle of awfulness of the director's previous film. Bas.

* I'm told if you're happy to see Kareena's boobs, this is a much better movie.
** True for both characters, which is understandable since they're just drinking to mute their pain yadda yadda, but also true for us in the audience, because it is so cliché and is without any interesting or meaningful consequence.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

Khudito Pashan

Fair warning: even if this movie is recommended for a wider audience than just Soumitra Chatterjee enthusiasts (aka sonpapdis*), this blog post might not be.

Trolling the internet for Soumitra Chatterjee films, as fangirls are wont to do, Indie Quill found Khudito Pashan, adapted from Tagore's short story, and we leapt upon it immediately. We were in love with it from the get-go as a disembodied, echoing voice shouts "Run away! Run away! It's all a lie!"** Seriously, that's the first thing that happens after the censor certificate. BRILLIANT! If that weren't enough, in the first few minutes it also gives gives up an angsty Soumitra in a suit jacket and trousers, an abandoned Mughal palace,
horses, ghosts,
guns, whooshing wind, flickering lanterns, and an overall sense of doom. "I feel like I already know the contents of this house," says Soumitra (I have no idea what his character's name actually is because everyone else just calls him huzoor and malik, so the actor's name will do), who is visiting the area as part of his work as a tax collector, to the local man showing him around. The guide then explains that 200 years ago a nawab built the palace to house hundreds of girls, "victims of his lust." "Run away! Run away!" bursts forth again, this time clearly the voice of the local madman. 
Never one to let the ravings of a lunatic get in his way, the otherwise sensible Soumtira insists on spending his nights in the palace no matter what rumors about it the locals (including Chhabi Biswas as the postmaster) throw in his path.

Even if you've never read the story, now you probably know approximately where it's going, with all these good gothic romance ingredients in place, as well as the faint trace of Madhumati. Indie Quill and I are both new enough to Bengali cinema generally that we don't feel confident making grand assumptions about how stories will play out or conclude, but barring radical intervention by uncontextualized plot elements, there were only a few reasonable options for how Khudito Pashan would shake out. Sure enough, the ghosts entangle Soumtira in their history from the nawab's time, and the lines between now and then, between real and fevered imaginations and superstitions, blur into the dramatic resolution. 

The beauty and fun, then, are in how it's all done, and I've got nothing but good things to say about that. The deserted palace is a maze of patterned stone floors and latticework in the lantern light, and you have to wonder how a person staying here all by himself night after night would not hallucinate Hindustani music and dancing girls. Speaking of, the music is gorgeous—it's by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (who also did director Tapan Sinha's intrigue-in-a-palace Jhinder Bandi the next year)—and as MinaiMinai describes on her blog, there's even a kathak performance. The music does much for creating an atmosphere for Soumitra's experiences and mental state, and Sinha was smart to let the music instead of people speak for large stretches of the exposition. The dance works this way too, its crescendo matching his tumble into the ghosts' world. The verbal silence also underscores how isolated Soumtira is—after all, whom would he talk to while he wanders the palace at night listening to the songs of the ghosts? He tries to talk to the ghost of one of the girls, Mumtaz (Arundhati Devi), but initially she refuses to speak, 
though she is perfectly happy to lure him through the palace while looking varyingly sad and coy. 
By the end of the film I realized that this is not just a creative way to handle story without words but also connects back to her history in the palace 200 years ago. And like the lead character's namelessness, the lack of words amplifies how un-real this all feels, with identities, chronologies, and explanations not pinned down.

The ghost story even begins so cleverly: Soumitra is just starting his first night in the palace, and, standing alone in the courtyard, picks up a pebble to toss into the fountain. 
Just as he raises his hand to throw it, he hears a faint tinkling like anklets and follows the sound inside to the shadowy hallways. He is drawn into the illusion of the ghosts' world before he can shatter the reflected illusion of the palace in the pool with his stone. I loved this—the history of the place compels him to heed it and interact with it, and it does so by hooking into his rational side ("I heard a noise, so I'm going to go find out what it is") rather than singing to him in his sleep or something similarly dream-like.

While I am grateful for the film's romp through the period-piece costume closet, I could have used more. But then again, it wouldn't have made sense for the modern-day characters to walk around in Mughal finery, so that's fair. 
"Soumitrao's thought bubble: 'By the thighs of Dharmendra, this kurta is doing a whole lot for my nonexistent pectorals!'" –via @inuit4

At this point, this post will turn its focus to Soumitra's character and his performance, but I think that attention is actually legitimate, given that he's the only major character and carries the film, with almost everything involving him or flat-out happening to him. To pin a project on an actor who has done only one other film is an interesting decision. Granted, that "one other film" was the absolutely astounding Apur Sansar, but still. And he's great. His character is a kind and personable bureaucrat who finds himself unable to escape a dream world that he cannot understand, almost like a fever. "It feels as if I'm living in Arabian Nights," he says to his colleague. He goes about handling this dream world the way he might a bunch of tax records: he's besotted with a Mughal, so he buys himself a Mughal outfit of his own so he can be appropriate in her presence, knocking down one of the easily identifiable barriers to them making sense together. The character is not Indian cinema's most useful hero—he keeps tripping, falling asleep, or getting knocked unconscious—
but it's not really fair to call him inept either. He just doesn't have any information. I like the irony of that—a paper-pusher with no information. 

"The unravelling of the romantic mind," as an article in The Asian Age says about a staged version of the Tagore story, is evident on his face and in his frame. I love the pairing of those concepts, the romantic, which he clearly is, drawn to live in the old palace despite common sense and mooning over its paintings, and a sharp mind, trying to figure out what's going on and why he reacts as he does. He is dreamy and confused and unwilling to stop expressing himself or to leave this woman he loves without knowing why or how.  
As I have probably mentioned in other posts about Soumitra Chatterjee, I have a very low tolerance for real or reel brooding, but somehow this actor does it in a way that expresses the character truly being troubled and thinking very hard about his problems rather than self-absorption, laziness, or simple moping. Maybe that's the shadow of Apu, but I've seen it in so many different characters, even in films not by Ray, that I will label it as one of his strengths as an actor. Luckily for him and the films he did, he and they were a good match for using this particular talent). He gives characters such vulnerability without making them weak or simplistic. He's so good at being human. He's also adept at this sort of small-scale white-collar flirting—bhadralok  love, maybe—that is wordy, a little humble, and respectful of his target. There's a moment in his interaction with Mumtaz's ghost when she is still silent and he's been pestering her and pestering her to tell him something about herself or why she keeps coming to him, and he finally says "If you won't talk, then how long can I keep blabbering?" Heehee. This kind of verbal cuteness resonates with me in a way that arm-flings on hilltops do not. Obviously a lot of the characterization is in the writing, but as ever he is an actor who can do so much with scraps of text, tiny gestures, the simplest movement of his eyes, whatever. Finesse: he has it, and he even manages to use it very well in the context of a ghost story in his second outing on screen.

However, there are two things about his character and performance here that don't really work for me. First is the very few moments of reciprocated love between Mumtaz and Soumitra. I won't spoil how they met in the past, but their romance is unconvincing and kind of perfunctory. Their backstory isn't even in Tagore's original story; maybe the problem here is that its development was cut short in favor of ghostly wanderings or the music, leaving it feeling unsupported, rushed, and out of nowhere. Their bond might also stem as much from his respect of her unwillingness to surrender to the Mughals (she's a captive) as from actual romance, but I didn't find the film clear on this point. Mumtaz has spent most of the film silent, so we know very little about her other than that she is a sad ghost who gets dragged away by soldiers, and Soumitra's historical character is not decisively linked to his current-day one other than through his physical appearance (and in fact, historical Soumitra is reprehensible at first), so the film has a lot of work to do in giving either of them a personality that can carry part of a love story...and it doesn't quite manage it. Giving these two characters just a few minutes more to demonstrate who they are and why they are worth the big risks of epic love would have helped a ton.
Even his intense staring into her eyes—which...let's just say it is very, very effective—does not a whole love story make. Meh. My other little quibble is with Soumitra's laugh, which has also bothered me in other films. In this one, the postmaster actually has dialogue about it—"Why are you saying you have a small life? Hearing your laugh, I understood you are large-hearted, like the sea"—but that description does not match what it actually sounds like. It's a regimented, mechanical "ha ha ha," like an alien reading from a textbook who hasn't yet mastered the humanity of that very basic expression. In fact, Chitti from Endhiran probably laughs more convincingly, but then again he's scripted by Rajnikanth, so he should do everything better than anyone else. The laugh detracts from an otherwise convincing portrayal of a relatable, very human man.

Overall, Khudito Pashan is good ghosty fun, full of atmosphere, shadows, mysteries, a hint of tragedy, and some genuinely sweet moments. If you dislike Soumitra Chatterjee, this is probably not the film for you, because he's in almost every moment of it. And as with Jhinder Bandi, you could just turn on this film and listen to it because the music is so wonderful. If you have read the story on which it's based, I would love to know your opinion of how this works as an adaptation. Apparently Gulzar's Lekin is based on the same story? Thoughts? I read the story after seeing this, and overall I'm impressed at how it was transformed into a film. The only aspect I find different (which might be a subtitling issue) is the sense of ominous peril. The palace in the film strikes me as strange and creepy rather than something that will definitely kill you. The stones are not as hungry. However, none of that changed my opinion of the film. It's just a slightly different spin on the story—perhaps a more filmi one,  with its emphasis on romance. 

Khudito Pashan is available to rent for $.99 in the US on Angel Digital's youtube channel here. It is not, for reasons that clearly stink, available in India.  There is another upload by Angel of the same film in 8 parts, but it leaves off the last 20 minutes of the film, which we discovered the hard way. 

And as a special treat for all my sonpapdis, here is Soumitra in jodhpurs and riding boots. I'll leave you to discover him dripping wet in Mughal silks on a moonlit beach on your own.
You're welcome.

* Thanks to Samit, who had no idea what he was starting by suggesting that sonpapdi was the correct sweet-based analogy for Soumitra Chatterjee (and no, I don't remember exactly why—something about having nutritional content yet also being supremely delicious?), a crew of us on twitter who rave about the actor refer to him as Sonpapdi (or the Maha Sonpapdi, if we are feeling very silly) and even sometimes to ourselves as the (lesser) sonpapdis.
** "Yeh jhoot hai! JHOOT" is probably my favorite bit of filmi dialogue ever, and this movie offered up a nice little twist with "Sub jhoot hai!"