Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mithun + long-lost brothers + martial arts + disco = Karate

I've just turned in my most glamorous, sparkly, vaguely inappropriately choreographed friendly appearance yet! Go on, grab a front row seat over at fellow MOSS agent and old friend Die Danger Die Die Kill and revel in the under-loved Mithun Chakraborty gem Karate.

Many thanks to Temple over at Cinema Chaat, who first brought this film to my attention and even sent me her VCDs. And please read her catalog of the socks of Chiranjeevi

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bengali film roundup

I meant for this to be a trio of reviews on Bengali films made in the last half dozen years, but Ballygunge Court was so bad—or at least "not inspiring patience, perhaps due to factors other than the film's inherent qualities (though perhaps not)"—that I turned it off after ten minutes.

Jora Dighir Chowdhury Paribar (1966)
Despite its screenplay by Mrinal Sen based on a novel by Pramathanath Bishi and starring many major names, I have found extremely little information about this film, including confirmation of involvement by that Mrinal Sen. It's a pretty film but also a sad one, which I have come to expect from any film that romantically pairs Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee. That feeling is also introduced right away with the titles scrolling over beautiful, desolate palaces, leading eventually an old man who stumbles through his abandoned-looking home.
Is he a ghost or an actual human? Hard to say, and the film implies it doesn't really matter, so ruined is his life. I'm also not certain who he is, but after seeing the whole film I think he is an aged Soumitra (I'm going to use actor names for clarity), who seems to be the most tragic male character in the film. Things start out nicely—you don't need subtitles to know that the scene below is shorthand for luuuurve—
but not long after Soumitra walks through the woods and sees this.
To be honest, the insertion of this little drawing threw me for a loop: there's nothing animated in the rest of the film, and I didn't pick up any cues that this was a hallucination or nightmare, so I have to assume the film is sparing us a realistic depiction of bodies hanging from trees. I really regret not understanding this scene better because I think it's the moment that alters the rest of the action. Right after this, Soumitra hears screams (and again I wondered "Ghost or real?") and tracks them down to Sabitri Chatterjee, who is being pursued by Tarun Kumar around a tent full of drunken men.
Sabitri Chatterjee in Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar
I don't know if she has been abducted from a respectable home or if she's a prostitute or what; she has a father who at first seems glad to see her again, but her facial expression indicates that she is not welcome back at home. Despite being in love with Madhabi, he marries Sabitri, I assume out of a sense of right and justice stirred up by the unfortunate victims he just saw; a wounded Madhabi very unhappily marries the despicable Tarun, who will eventually cheat on her with her friend Ruma Guha Thakurta.
Madhabi Mukherjee and Ruma Guha Thakurta in Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar
I'll pause here to say that I think Ruma Guha Thakurta (right) is one of the most stunning women I've seen in Indian film. For you trivia fans, she's also a playback singer and Kishore Kumar's first wife.
Where I get truly lost is an armed conflict between...frankly I'm not sure who's fighting or why, but this is the danger foreshadowed by the strange drawing seen earlier. The footage of torch-wielding fighters is very lovely, looking as much like fireflies, stars, or oil lamps on a pond as like the peril they really are.  
Madhabi and Soumitra are both involved in the conflict. I have seldom seen women in films take up arms, and her choice of joining the fight, of taking control, is a moving contrast to her married life in which she seems to be the distressed object of other people's actions. In the screen shot immediately below, she has just wrangled a bunch of men into some action or other by a combination of what sounds like inspiration and shame (she says "Chee chee chee!" a few times), and I love the image of her with her hands on her hips, accomplished and proud.
Based on what I think I understand, this is a story of sacrifice for what is right, written across several levels. That would probably also describe half of the older Hindi films I watch, but somehow it seems more direct here, firmly outlined by clear decision-makers and -sufferers and amplified by the drama of war. 

Maybe I've reached critical mass for familiarity with certain Bengali film visuals or maybe some of the movies set in the nineteenth century are just repetitive, but this film ticked many boxes that helped me understand the story despite not having subtitles. For example, a Durga Puja scene often seems to cement several ideas: we're in West Bengal, someone is pious, and there is community that chooses to come together, sometimes with a zamindar or other leader very clearly as one of the centers of their assembly and attention. 
I think it works all those ways in this film. I do not fully understand what the older generation of the central wealthy family (Soumitra's grandfather, I think?), who I assume is at least partly responsible for the Puja celebrations, is up to exactly or why local people in his sphere of influence take up arms. The astoundingly powerful  Devi also opens with a similar scene; in that film the sequence establishes the older generation as very pious, even obsessively so, but in this film it's not clear to me whether the early depiction of the goddess and associated violent imagery foreshadows conservative thinking or armed conflict.

You can watch Jora Dighir Chowdhury Paribar at the Angel youtube channel.

Kailashey Kelenkari (2007)
Whoever it was among my Bengali Cinema Advisory Team who said "Sandip Ray? Proceed with caution!" was so right. Not all actors can be Soumitra Chatterjee and not all directors can be Satyajit Ray, but my god this movie is terrible. It's not as bad as Bombaiyer Bombete but that's really not saying much. I have nothing at all against Sabyasachi Chakraborty as Feluda—nor do I really have a horse in the race of what actors playing Feluda should be like, other than effective as the character, and even then I don't have the impassioned history with and attachment to Feluda as a character that so many other viewers do*—but Joi Baba Felunath levels of badass he is not. I also loathe the portrayal of Jatayu, who comes off as a moron rather than the sort of naive but not completely incompetent friend in Ray's own films. As for Topshe...again, not a character I care about at all but each time I see Parambrata Chatterjee I am more convinced that his turn in  Kahaani was a one-off stroke of brilliance owing significantly to the writer and director.

What saved this movie from being switched off almost immediately:
1) a jolly assortment of actors I've come to know from across earlier decades of Bengali films, including Haradhan Bannerjee (Priyanka's kindly principal in Barfi! [and a zillion Bengali films, including Topshe's father in the first Feluda]), Biplab Chatterjee (who's a good-for-nothing in another Feluda film), and Dipankar De (most recently seen on this site as the hero's brother in Jana Aranya).
2) Tom Alter, whom I adore, and J. Brandon Hill, who does not impress me but whose career arc is amusing, and
3) the basic setting of the crime Feluda investigates, which is the looting and illegal sale of Indian cultural heritage. This is a topic near to my professional heart and it's rare to see it depicted in Indian films (or American ones either, for all I know). Even better, much of this movie is actually filmed at Ellora (and a few moments at the Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad), and it's so wonderful to see these sites up close that you can block out the clunky line delivery. Of course, you could get the same thrill and none of the annoyance from a good travel video, professional or otherwise.

I've spent a lot of energy thinking about Satyajit Ray in the last year, and so far the only thing I genuinely do not like about him is the absence of female characters of any scope or impact (and sometimes even simple presence) in the Goopy Bagha movies and the filmed Feluda stories. In Kailashey Kelenkari  there is one named woman, she has one line, and she is utterly unimportant to the main story. In fact, she reads like the low-budget non-musical version of an item girl, a woman plonked down in a story out of nowhere simply to provide "glamor" with glaring irrelevance, which in this case is even more pathetic than what else is going on (she basically sits still for the few seconds she's on camera). I truly hate this about these films, and I am completely unsatisfied with any explanation I've heard for why Ray didn't seem able to incorporate females into stories for children, especially when he is so good at casting wonderfully talented women and creating female characters who are well-integrated into interesting, full, supportive contexts in his other films. It's a failure in a person whose intelligence, creativity, and carefulness are otherwise beautiful, thrilling, and inspiring. In the case of Kailashey Kelenkari, it's another in a long line of problems with the film, but all the others can, I think, be laid at the feet of Sandip Ray. It's a perfectly good story (though in a bizarrely men-only world), but he can't do a thing with it.

Maach Mishti and More (2013)
This film has several things going for it in my book: Soumitra Chatterjee being alternately endearing, funny, and poignant; an animated title sequence; and discussion of culture clashes and local identities and worldviews.
Unfortunately, beyond those joys it mostly falls flat. I have no doubt that the better you know contemporary Calcutta, especially the conflicting (stereotypes of?) Bengali and Marwari cultures, the better you will understand this film and thus potentially also like it, but I think it needs better acting to be truly successful. Most of the main characters other than Soumitra (as the granddad of the central family) and Swastika Mukherjee (the wife of the family's oldest son) speak as though they're reading from slowly-revealed cue cards. Shauvik Kundagramim as the oldest, foreign-returned son (and Woody Allen-y in a very bad way) and Raima Sen as a manic pixie dream girl for Parambrata Chatterjee's cowardly middle son are especially grating.

Soumitra's role is also quite charming and he brings more sparkle and interest to it by simple, slight alterations of facial expressions that the rest of the cast put together can manage for theirs. In addition to providing an almost unspoken emotional focus for the family of grumbling middle-aged parents and three sons who all seem to be on somewhat unconventional paths, he has a cute relationship with a local teenager he runs into at the tea stall. Over the course of the film, he gives her relationship advice and thus quietly, and, without whining about the losses he has seen or grumbling about what's wrong with today's youth, ensures that some of the meaningful values of the older generation are translated to and find new relevance in the lives of the young.
Swastika, however, has an uphill battle as a wife largely uninvolved in her husband's business plan that brings them back to Calcutta from the US and then watches him dither around with new projects and forget her, and her sacrifice, completely.
The story is mostly structured around male characters, but each of them has at least one significant female counterpart, and I think the female characters function well both as individuals in their own right and as symbols (or embodiments?) of challenges facing the sons as each of them learns to grow up a little bit over the course of the film. For those reasons alone I wish I liked this more than I did; it's not egregious but working on more natural, or at least less boring, delivery would have helped immensely. Soumitra effortlessly proves he's still got heaps of talent and knows how to use it, and the film is a must-see for fans of Sonpapdi.

And as someone allergic to swimmy things, this makes me laugh.

Thanks to Bala for bringing this one to my attention and tempting me to watch it by tweeting cute screen shots of Soumitra. 

* You know Shashi Kapoor has played Feluda too, don't you? Oh yes. I haven't seen it, but you can imagine how badly I want to. Bollyviewer and I scoured the Devon Avenue movie shops for it but no luck.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

the Ganguly, Mukherjee, and Samarth family tree

This group might boggle the mind even more than the Kapoors—to whom, thanks to Kishore Kumar's countless marriages, they are also connected. In college, I had a giant chart of the English royal family since the early medieval period (history major WHAT WHAT), and this one is no less complex. I don't have the words to express how amazed I am by all of this, the layer upon layer of connections, even though there is nothing new in families staying in the same business across generations or in allying with others in the same field. 

Horrifying corollary: if Rani Mukherjee marries Aditya Chopra, then Uday Chopra and Satyajit Ray will be distantly related. Only by marriage, but still. 
Click here for a larger pdf.
Previous family tree projects: the Irani sisters (including Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and Farah Khan), the Feroz and Sanjay Khans and Roshans (with Mumtaz!),  Satyajit Ray to Mithun Chakraborty (which shows the link to the Kapoors), and the Kapoors (which I need to re-do in a more visually clear and image-heavy form).

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jana Aranya

[Probably spoiler-y but no more so than any other article about this film.]

There's a ten-second sequence about half an hour into Jana Aranya that exemplifies what a fantastic movie it is. Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee), a recent college graduate, is plodding through the Calcutta streets looking for work and slips on a banana peel thoughtlessly tossed aside by Bishu (Utpal Dutt), an older gentleman. Onlookers laugh, and Bishu turns around and realizes with some distress what has happened. He and Somnath then recognize each other, and as they exchange pleasantries, the camera angle switches from Somnath surrounded by street wares and passers-by to face Bishu directly, framing him under a giant hoarding for toilets.
What you do not know as you watch this scene initially is that Bishu will soon become Somnath's mentor in business, offering him a door into a line of work as a supplier of basically anything anyone needs, sharing space in his office, and introducing him to various useful people. What Somnath does not know is that following in Bishu's footsteps will land him right back in the ethical grime and nastiness of the modern city, just as it literally did with the banana peel. Bishu, as the hoarding behind him suggests, eventually leads to the sewer.

Ray almost immediately continues this warning with its obvious and as yet unrecognized meanings. A few moments later, the camera focuses on Somnath and Bishu's feet as the two walk along a road full of potholes, puddles, and garbage, and Bishu says "Watch your steps. There are pitfalls all around. There are three kinds of roads here: bad; very bad; very, very bad." (It is a particular but vast pleasure to hear Utpal Dutt say "Bad; very bad; very, very bad" in English. I cannot recommend it enough.) That is exactly the life that Somnath discovers. His reflections on it, and his judgment of his own role within it, create a portrait of modern life full of compromise, misdirection, and self-centeredness.

The film is full of these little but important moments depicted gently: a car glove compartment door keeps falling open to reveal evidence of the driver's vice; a man who marks exams needs new glasses and cannot be bothered to read tiny but neat handwriting by the uncomfortable light in his dark room; an unconfident Somnath struggles to erase a mistyped question mark from a job application cover letter; and during a power cut, a character anchors a candle in a pool of melted wax before providing hopeful reassurance in the face of distress.

An aside: when I first started watching Bengali films in an organized fashion about a year ago, I initially hoped that with time I would find the Manmohan Desai (and screenwriter Prayag Raj, for that matter) of Calcutta. A few Bengali friends assured me there is no such thing, but sometimes I would swear it is Satyajit Ray. The overall tone and the causality of problems and suffering are decidedly different in their films (I read somewhere that Ray very rarely has actual villains, which is fun to think about), but there are just as certainly some similarities: careful structuring of details among a deceptive simplicity, interest in human emotions, repeated symbolism across films (Ray gives people shutters to peep through; Desai makes them temporarily blind), and the very effective use of humor and music.

What non-material comforts are left in this modern world? Very few, the film seems to say. Somnath's father (Satya Banerjee) says he finds no solace in a guru or faith like many other people his age, and he is further unsettled by reports of a friend's son who has moved to America, where he buys expensive cars and thinks it's okay for the generations not to spend much time together.
You can barely see Somnath's arm in the background pulling the curtain across the doorway between himself and his father.
In a weary dinner conversation, the family discusses the ubiquity of bribery, and Somnath's brother unhelpfully pipes up to remind them that since Sanskrit has words for various vices, they all existed in ancient times too. The father, I think, would rather assume the past is rosy.
Romance is unreliable; Somnath's girlfriend leaves him in the beginning of the film for purely pragmatic but still very sad reasons. Friendship is difficult to maintain when jobs and real-world problems pull in different directions.

The only happy people in the movie are the ones who have come to terms with their lives. Some of them probably came by that easily, notably Somnath's brother (Dipankar Dey) and sister-in-law (Lily Chakravarty), who have a calm about them that suggests some kind of contentedness. Late in the film we meet two women who exude comfort and good cheer despite being involved in prostitution, upsetting any association of it with desperation and misery.
Aside: we see no women in any other trade or profession in the film, and I love that their Ray has given what looks a lot like happiness to most of the women he does choose to show. (And as a further detour, I'll quickly add that overall this film is very frank and nonjudgmental about sex, most notably in an older widow who merrily employs her own daughters in a brothel in the family home, but also in fairly casual mentions of it as being an activity that some people do and thus being a playing field on which you can meet them. And because society has some shame about sex, even though these characters seem not to, it's an area in which the opportunistic can take advantage of people who fear their activities being discovered.) The few women in the film are also very straightforward in general, with no trace of coyness or flattery. They look the men in the eye and make no apologies about their choices and feelings.

Pradip Mukherjee has an absolutely perfect resting facial expression in this film. It's not quite a smile, though he does smile's more a cautious optimism or slight wonder, let's call it, and it makes his eventual compromises with his own sense of right and wrong even sadder. He has spent so much of the film looking hopeful that watching his face fall amplifies his tragic resignation.
He looks and acts somewhere between boy and man, which, at least to me watching from 21st-century America, makes sense, given that when we meet him he's finishing school and trying enter into the very adult (in the sense of a harder life of more responsibilities) world of work, all while pleasing his father. The ambivalence of his maturity is reinforced at home by a father who largely treats him as an independent adult—trusting him with money and letting him make his own decision about marriage—and his brother and sister-in-law who respectively tease and mother him. At least two of the older male characters who are ensconced in the world of business comment on his likable face; according to the subtitles they don't quite say he looks automatically trustworthy, but their tone is something along those lines and implies that he can probably have more success in sales than his unaggressive words and gentle demeanor might suggest.

Calcutta in Jana Aranya (the third in Ray's "Calcutta Trilogy") is neither the refined cultural and intellectual capital nor the sophisticated and elegant scene of parties and social clubs as it appears in other films. This Calcutta is at best hustle and bustle, a site of opportunities, and at worst selfishness, moral decline, and opportunism. The city hosts plenty of enterprise but little, if any, progress.

I don't know if Ray is saying that the world of the city is to blame for Somnath's unhappy decisions; such a message would be more clear if Somnath was shown to arrive in the city from somewhere more rural (and thus pure), but as far as I can tell, he is a born and bred city boy. However, he eventually has to leap from being a student of history to a small-scale businessman ("No one in our family has ever done business," says his father as he mulls over Somnath's idea for a job), which I suspect is some kind of critique of the city's failure to value its past. The city's old buildings are grubby and worn in this film instead of stately (if crumbling) landmarks, and in fact there's a minor character who makes his money by tearing down old colonial mansions and putting high-rise apartments in their place. There's even a strange little visual detour as this man explains what he does for a living; as he talks to Somnath about the grandeur of the old homes, the camera wanders shakily through an abandoned mansion, juxtaposing current dilapidation (and eerie music) with memories of luxury. It's a tiny and almost incongruous sequence but says so much about the rotting bones (and maybe heart) of the city that are about to be destroyed completely.
Somnath later accepts a commission from this man in exchange for showing him an old house for sale, and to me this is as poignant a sign of Somnath's ethical education as the film's actual finale: the historian has activiely participated in the destruction of the past.*

The commodities that Somnath seeks and provides too are signs of his ongoing initiation into business. He starts out selling duplicating paper and envelopes—ubiquitous, everyday, everyone-needs-them things—then boxed items that I don't think are ever named but whose wrappers are printed with watchful eyes, and finally optical whitener for textile production—very specific, very artificial, and I assume very cosmetic, used to alter the appearance of the product.

Like any city, the film is full of interesting people and provides a big canvas for a parade of little parts, mostly in Somnath's colleagues and clients. Bimal Chatterjee, for instance, comes off almost like a mob henchman as Bishu's book-cooker with a deep voice and a white suit with huge lapels. Santosh Dutta  as the real estate developer mentioned above is cheerfully predatory, a fun spin on the jovial idiot type he plays in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Teen Kanya, and the Feluda films. Gautam Chakravarti exudes a likable laziness as Somnath's friend and counterpoint Sukumar; they take different routes after school but both stumble closer and closer to the disappointing realities of the wider world.
That's Sukumar sitting in the grimy alley outside his house with his head down and wishing to escape. This moment is heartbreaking. 
The rockstar of the film is Robi Ghosh as the styled, oily "public relations" pro Mr. Mitter, who becomes Somnath's second mentor and the one who directly forces Somnath to deal with the true nitty-gritty of his line of work, namely what kinds of exchanges is he ready to broker.
Mr. Mitter reminds me of the supernatural aid in the heroic monomyth (complete with a talisman, his clear plastic watch) except in reverse:
he dangles success in front of Somnath but keeps upping the price, ultimately slipping away to leave Somnath in the belly of the whale to face the hardest decision on his own (and it is because of Mitter that Somnath must give up the other talismanic item in the film). And of course Robi Ghosh nails every aspect of this character, making Mitter instantly known yet impatient and twitchy, evoking greaseballs and cowards we've all had the misfortunate to meet. In a film full of funny, interesting, and compelling performances, his is the most impressive (although it's also the most showy, so comparison of him to the understated Pradip is probably unfair).

I could go on even longer about how wonderful Jana Aranya is, especially if I broke it down into components that are each interesting and well-crafted on their own. The dynamics of Somnath's family: a quiet and worried father, a deceased mother who left money for her sons, an elder brother who is himself settled but seems to offer no model to for his younger brother to follow, a sister-in-law who seems to have to take care of all of these men yet dotes on Somnath, maybe even standing in a bit for his mother, especially in emotional matters. The visuals of the city of Calcutta, which to my eye comes off as more frantic and confused than it does in any of Ray's other films that I have seen, focusing on crowded buildings or the wares, signs, and people all unevenly stacked on top of one another. The different pieces of advice Somnath is given by his elders and how each of those people does or does not exemplify their own wisdom. The male-ness of these characters' lives. How funny it all is. Once I see all of Ray's feature films—and I only have four left—I hope to do some sort of list of my personal favorites of them, and this will certainly be in my top five. It is so rich, operating on and speaking to many levels, navigating them all brilliantly, just like a successful middle man would need to. Ray, from the novel by Mani Shankar Mukherjee, has made what is not so much a cynical film but rather a film that wonders about cynicism. It questions whether a life like Somnath's (and lives like those of the people he encounters) are worthwhile beyond financial necessity, whether we should doubt the motives of those who offer us things, and maybe even whether there isn't a better way to reach those things. If such a kind, smart kid as Somnath can so easily find himself a pimp, what does that say about the rest of us who let him? At the same time, the film depicts, mostly in quick flashes, real stability and happiness, often locating them in people whom it's easy to judge and dismiss. It is a complicated world.

Here are some bonus pictures to end. Mitter peruses the menu at Flury's.
and reads an issue of Stardust as a prostitute tells him how much she loves the spicy tidbits about film stars.
The widow/madam has a giant, bounding dog in her otherwise orderly living room (excellent security in her line of work, I would think)
while also confronting her clients with a poster of dewy-eyed puppies.
I have no idea what the set designer was up to with this—possibly to reinforce her as a sort of simplistic cheerful sort—but it cracked me up.

* It's only fair to note that I think it's possible to read this small thread of tearing down colonial mansions to build apartment buildings as a bit of comment on the importance, or at least understandable desire, for contemporary India to get rid of symbols of the British, especially very elite and individual-focused ones, and replace them with much more pragmatic ones based on contemporary needs. Early in the film, Bishu comments that Somnath's birthday is Indian Independence Day (told you Ray and Desai have things in common!), and if it's an important enough detail to include in film, associating (even paralleling) the character with India's growing awareness of its changing needs and desires seems legitimate.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chennai Express

the short version
I don't hate it, but I absolutely would not have seen it in the first place if it weren't for Shahrukh. And it is better—more interesting, less painful, more likely to be rewatched (though I'm in no hurry and would not be sad if I never saw it again)—than Jab Tak Hai Jaan by a long shot.

the long version
The biggest punch in Chennai Express lands immediately as the film opens. The subsequent runtime of the film has kicked the details out of my head, but the basic gist of it is Shahrukh, at what is clearly the onset of a huge brawl, saying something like "My name is Rahul, I'm 40 years old, and I'm about to do something I've never done before" (or maybe it's "I find myself in a place I've never been," but you get the idea) and holding a shovel up by his shoulders like it's a baseball bat, business end ready to come crashing down.* That seems to be in essence what the purpose of the film really is: put King Khan in a different 100-crore scenario than he's ever been in before and show he can do this style of blockbuster (or a blockbuster with a certain set of formulaic trappings) in his own way but just as successfully as Salman or Ajay Devgn or Akshay Kumar (Aamir having left his bloody-toothed smashy-smash in Ghajini, it would appear).

This particular iteration seems (relatively) thoughtfully made for him: lots of opportunities for the quivering ~ eyebrows and tears to kick into action, a big romantic gesture, actual reflection on his priorities and his culture, some good (if not full-throttle) dancing and heroine-authored dream moments that justify the arm-fling, and cleverly running away more often than fighting. The film repeatedly gives spoken and visual reminders of how Shahrukh Khan, at least at first glance, does not have the physical presence of even a stylized southie masala hero and there's little indication in the actor's body or in the character that he will have any kind of force to him whatsoever (he is costumed in enough shirts that you don't really see his arms and torso until later in the film) (though I think the revealing of SRK's muscles on screen has generally been for fantasy and beauty more than force anyway). Of course, only the fictional villains don't know that he will eventually defeat them, but the story makes good use of him being stronger in body and character than they expected him to be.

And speaking of a hero being smaller-scale than we might expect in a film from this director or of this approximate type: can we think of another Hindi hero who, in this setting, would bill himself after the heroine (especially when their roles are of basically equal until the finale brawl) and then essentially create an offering in song to one of the biggest superstars in the country when said superstar doesn't appear even in a cameo in the film? I'm trying to imagine Salman doing a song about the greatness of Rajnikanth and it just doesn't work in my head. And no one would care if Ajay did it. I don't know what exactly it means, or might mean in how we think of him later in his career, that SRK has done a "Hurrah for Rajnikanth!" song, but no matter how silly or fluffy the song, I think it says something about his own version of superstardom, one that seems to acknowledge some...humility? humor? self-awareness? sense of the order of things? Aside: is there a list somewhere of songs by one hero in tribute to another? It'd be a fascinating read/watch. Off the top of my head, I can only think of "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from Rab Ne Bana Jodi, and that was much more about eras of films and iconic pairings than about one particular actor (and if anything may have been a way to equate SRK with, or insert him into, that list of icons).

Rahul's refrain of "Don't underestimate the power of the common man," which the writers worked into the dialogue at least five times more than was strictly necessary to establish it as a motto, is exactly what they're doing within the story and at the more meta level, showing that this famously once-outsider now-mega megastar can do what many of his primary contemporaries are doing despite his biggest hits and most famous roles being in other types of movies. I think it will take more than one film to establish SRK as a north-goes-south sort of hero, but he's showing he can do a tailored version of it if he wants to—and if audiences want him to, of course, which, based on what I'm reading about the box office for Chennai Express, we do. The film seems well aware that it's doing something different with its star, and maybe that's the reason for the onslaught of references to Shahrukh's previous films.

Aside from maintaining my standing as a student of Shahrukh Studies, I had no reason to watch Chennai Express.  It's really not my kind of movie—give me just plain Shetty over his son any day—and I only had any interest in it when I first heard about it because of its star. Once reviews started coming in, my curiosity about Deepika was piqued. I thought she was very good in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani and was pleased to hear she had turned in another strong performance. Now that I've seen it, I'm really puzzled by her rave reviews. She is perfectly fine but doesn't do much in particular with her role. Nor does she have much interesting to work with (as is so often the case) except to act relatively sensibly (as is so rare for heroines) in a world full of idiotic men (back to "so often"), though I am grateful to the writers for giving her a chance to have fun with Tamil film witch characterization. With the exception of some lovely waterfalls, the brightness and order of the pastoral get-away village, and some moments of songs, the look of the film is...fine? It's not anything I wish I had screencaps of for visual inspiration or aesthetic bliss, let's put it that way. The brief comic relief moment with the little person is surely going to stand out as a WTF WAS THAT moment of 2013, with filmmakers doing everything in their power to strip his humanity short of giving him wings and painting him green.

The first ten minutes of biographical and family sketch prelude are pointless and charmless and feature Shahrukh being given dialogues that suit someone half his character's age, resulting in a very bumpy start. I'd like to see a rewrite that followed "tell, don't show" with some of that, maybe having Rahul stand on the train station platform with his backpack and urn while doing a voice-over about how he was supposed to go to Goa with friends but his grandma asked him to take his dear grandfather's ashes to Rameshwaram, so he thought he'd try to fool her. I'm also not a fan of his squirrely shenanigans on the train. We all know Shahrukh can stammer and squirm to great effect, but he doesn't hit the right notes this time, maybe because we know he is, and he clealry looks, just too damn old to be so juvenile. Honestly, I'm not sure what the right notes would have been, but cutting the length of this bit, or dialing back from 11 to something around 7, would surely help.**

I read at least half a dozen reviews and many more tweets about Chennai Express before I saw it, so maybe my attempts to manage my expectations accordingly were just really effective. As awkward and pointless as parts of it are, I truly do not understand the hatred and disappointment this film has inspired. Once the train stopped at Meena's village (and was never seen again), I thought the movie worked perfectly well at what I understood it to be trying to do. The only aspect of "what the film is trying to do" that I personally care much about is the persona and iterations of Shahrukh the star, so maybe I inadvertently ignored some big problems?

To close, I want to discuss whether the film actually succeeds in making any coherent statements about women after the somewhat sassy heroine and grandstanding have finished. One friend told me she found the ending "batshit regressive." My reaction is more an uneasy balance of several moments from across the film. Meena is still the object, rather than a real participant, in the marriage customs that she and Rahul enact to convince people they're a real couple and, in the end, restrained by her father, forced to watch a horribly violent fight involving the man she loves, and then literally handed over to him by her father (probably the worst possible way to evoke DDLJ). And I desperately wish there had been another female character with a name other than dadima. But on the other hand, in much of the story Meena has a lot of agency and makes her own decisions and she gently wields strength as the translator for Rahul (information is power!). I love the very appropriate and surprisingly direct moment in the otherwise stultifying speech Rahul makes near the end about how India's independence is incomplete and hollow when women are still bound and treated like property. What do you think? [Update to post (August 12, 2013): there are lots of great ideas about this in the comments. Do read them.]

Bonus: very fine subtitle fail when, in discussing the immersing of grandpa's ashes in the ocean, "fulfilled rituals" appeared as "fun-filled rituals."

* For those who haven't seen the film, it then flashes back from that point to a brief sketch of Rahul's upbringing and family for about ten completely wasted minutes, then puts him on the titular train and the real story begins, only getting back to this moment in the final ten or so minutes.
** Holy product placement. That was so incredibly brash I almost have to admire them for having the cheek to try it so bold-faced-ly. I'm not sure how successful it is, given that the product is literally tossed out the window early in the film and never referred to again. Even if viewers remember the phone and its features, I think we could just as easily read that sequence as tongue-in-cheek comment by the filmmakers and cast about the disposable nature of corporate intrusion into their work.