mini-reviews of films I wanted to like: Rockstar and Nautanki Saala

Two little posts on two films about artists that didn't work as well as I hoped they would.

Caveat: I dislike Rockstar so much I couldn't even finish it. Therefore I must 1) forfeit much of a right to talk about it beyond these paragraphs and 2) acknowledge that some of my problems with it might have been resolved if I had kept watching. But "keep watching" was not a bargain I was willing to strike with a film with two idiotic protagonists, one of them horrendously acted*, that seems to assure young men that if they pester/stalk a woman long enough she will eventually hear his case case and very quickly find him so charming that she unveils her secret "bad girl" self to him and takes him to a porno, and that suggests that the only way to create art is by experiencing pain, an idea I find highly suspect despite the long fondness of cinema for showing us asshole artists. I don't even remember what was happening when I finally crossed the Jordan, so to speak, to the release of the off button. I know there had been talk of Jordan's presence being medically beneficial to Heer, because at that point I had a memory of people referring to this as the magical healing cock movie.

A moment on "stalking=love": while I watched this film, some people on my twitter timeline had an interesting discussion of whether or not Janardan was stalking Heer or whether his lack of menace slotted his behavior under "unwanted persistence." I come down on the side of "no means no; even if your intent is not malicious, the woman has told you no and you need to respect that." Janardan's continued disregard for Heer's initial feelings about him establishes him as a foolish and solipsistic character, which I suppose suits the notion of Great Artist, especially of the black-leather bad-boy variety, but it makes me dislike him and dislike the film for eventually rewarding it with romance, sex, and, in a less direct but still relevant way, the pain required to make him into a famous artist. (To me, Jordan's initial round of suffering seems to be caused by the horrible treatment by his family, which only indirectly results from his choices about Heer, but still, it's hard to imagine him acting in the ways they found so objectionable if he hadn't run off to Kashmir.)

The film does at least look really good, with distinct atmospheres of the three major locations (Delhi, Kashmir, Prague) yet tied together by all the shots of small and/or winding lanes and streets, maybe suggesting a life of constraint and constriction for Heer and of chaos for Jordan? As ever, Ranbir Kapoor impresses me, as does the supporting cast. And what a treat to see Shammi! The music is infinitely more soulful and substantial than anything in Rock On (which I also should have abandoned)—yes, they're different kinds of rock stars, but for all the face-pulling and temperaments in Rock On, Rockstar's music has tons more content, musically and lyrically. But the story is just so relentlessly stupid—as in, the people in it seem to have put very little thought into what they say and do—puzzling, and at moments ethically off-putting that I had to stop.

Nautanki Saala
I know nobody had much good to say about this, but it just looks so interesting, and the soundtrack is at times so charmingly different, that I couldn't resist finding out if the film was the same. Nautanki Saala does indeed feel very different than most Bollywood comedies, partly because even though it is contextualized in attempted suicide and the world of theater (with the subtitles saying "drama queen" repeatedly) and involves lots of silly shenanigans, it is also somehow much more low key (not a slide whistle to be heard, thank Helen). I don't know enough about French cinema to say it feels French (whether or not such a vibe would come automatically from its source material)—though some of the music has that feel, no?—and given that Rohan Sippy so enjoyably evoked the Argentinian Nine Queens in Bluffmaster, a foreign feel would have just been an attraction to me. The film's hero (an assured Ayushmann Khurrana) isn't very heroic, so much so that he chooses to play Ravana in his professional life and, if you think about it, becomes a worse person throughout the course of the film than he was at its beginning, with an ending that has a very un-filmi piece at its heart. Its sexual ethics are modern and laissez-faire, with cheating, kissing**, very short skirts, and a couple living together without being married all functioning as mere plot points rather than moral commentary.

The most significant problem I can nail with certainty is the underwritten female characters, one of whom is particularly important to the plot and the principal emotional arc of the film but is just too faint of a presence for her centrality to make sense. Debut actor Pooja Salva is probably not the best possible person to portray her, either; I think she aims for a sort of a wide-eyed Marilyn Monroe-y comic lightness but she comes off as a dandelion puff just about to float out of the movie. Gaelyn Mendonca as the hero's live-in girlfriend is okay, but her role seems to be missing something too. Her arc should matter a lot more than it does, as though the film neither downplays it enough to be merely a comic aside or collateral damage to the changing hero nor gives it enough heft to provide the emotion that its actual unfolding suggests it should have. I also wonder if Evelyn Sharma (infinitely less annoying here than as Lara in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani)'s role may have gotten mangled, because it seems that certain developments are hinted at for her but never actually materialize. Basically, the women are around too much to have as little actual presence as they do.

I don't hate it, but Nautanki Saala is more different than it is special, despite its charms. The ethical decline of the hero doesn't help, and I think too much energy is put on depicting that when something more compelling could have been written for the suicidal man (amusingly grumpy and dim Kunaal Roy Kapur) whom he befriends and tries to help. The glimpses of that character that we are given in the last third or so of the film are more satisfying and interesting to me than anything the hero chooses to do. Maybe because of its...not geographical groundlessness, exactly, but the sense that it could be set many places and has little other than surface features that feel specifically Indian (or Bollywood-y), there is a dreaminess to it, or maybe even a fable-like quality. It never feels fully real (which is not the same thing as realistic), a sense that is encouraged every time the characters are shown at work in the Ramayana with an audience watching and responding to them. It's detached. And for some of the comedy, that's a good thing, enabling a lightness that I find desperately needed in some of the things Bollywood tells me to laugh at. But when it comes to character development, pacing, and encouraging our investment as viewers, some more discipline would have made this a much more satisfying film.

* Surely there are literally at least a million young women in India who are as pretty as Nargis Fakhri and could have done the role better than she did. HOW DID SHE GET THIS PART?

** Did anyone else think this was a really good kiss (you can find it on youtube if you need to research)? Was I just so let down by the much ado about utterly nothing in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that I have set my bar too low?


Anonymous said…
I remember commenting in a very similar way on my blog about Rockstar, back when it came out, though perhaps not as vehemently. Maybe seeing it in the theater helped me get through it. The visuals were very good, and the music was stellar. I thought it was Rahman's best soundtrack since Meenaxi. But I also thought the whole first section of the film with the stalking should just be cut. Tediously long and would have been somewhat creepy, if I hadn't found Jordan's character so lackluster. He got more interesting after he got a life, but then he started torturing himself and his audience with his wardrobe...the last one being reminiscent of both Yanni and Sgt. Pepper...doubly horrifying.

Now I haven't seen Nautanki Saala to put it in context, but, to me, the kiss was sexy, quiet and intense, but I was thrown off by the comedy "trauma" of the guy watching them. Those noises he made kept killing the romantic tension for they probably were supposed to do.
Maya said…
All am going to say is thank you for that Rockstar review. It was an awful, awful film & it's nice to finally find someone who doesn't think it's this amazing, emotional- even heard it described as philosophical- romance. Because it's really not.
Tobi said…
Warning: my comment is spoilerous and a bit penis-y. Ok, very penis-y:

All I really took away from this movie was questions about Ranbir/Jordan's willy: it magically heals Heer, but then she gets pregnant and dies, so it also basically kills her.

Is the willy a force of good or evil? Is the subtext of this movie to always practice safe sex? To stay away from Ranbir's penis? Is the willy playing a double hero-villain role? Should it have gotten top billing and it's own vanity van?

Also, I nearly bailed on this movie after the joke about how Heer would've been gang-raped by the porno audience. I wish I had.
Tobi said…
(I'm really sorry about the above comment.

I've been spending a lot of time with my sister lately and the line between what's acceptable between immature siblings and what's acceptable in a public forum, particularly when that forum is a respected blog, well that line got a little bit blurry.

Please feel free to delete it. I won't mind, or turn into a hideous troll or anything.)

Jenny - I was wondering about the effect of the theater for Rockstar. I can imagine I would have been more patient with it if I'd paid $12 and had the big screen to show me Kashmir and all. Your comment also helps me realize how much I hate "asshole=interesting" as an excuse for character development. I guess it technically IS character development, but it's lazy and off-putting. And excellent call on the wardrobe. In that little compilation section at the beginning, where they're going backwards (I think?) from his Prague meltdown to university, watching his outfits go by was a hoot. Sergeant Yanni's MHC Club Band!

I hadn't noticed that in the kiss scene in NS but I bet you're right - deliberately undercutting/puncturing/re-setting big emotion seems like the kind of thing that film would do.

Maya - I am glad to find more people who agree! I have several good friends whose opinions I very much respect who loved it, so I had that sense of "What's wrong with me?" when I began to hate it almost immediately.

Tobi - Your comment is THE BEST and don't you dare delete it! The more take-down of manchildren and their willies, the better, I say! And I think you may be on to something: the willy as the new millennium's take on the masala-staple long-lost twin brother.

Glad you mentioned the gang rape joke. I tweeted about that while watching but forgot to re-list it here. I know this film was made before the events of December 2012 but it's hard conceive of that ever being something a character actually needs to say.
Bollywood Begum said…
Nautanki Saala had such good music too. What a shame
Mette said…
Gahh, I disliked Rockstar a lot too, still makes me angry when I think back at it. And it had so much potential! I loved the first posters, the soundtrack, even the trailer was sort of good. But everything just got destroyed by the awful script, the bad direction and that horrible actress.

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