Friday, November 29, 2013

My Brother Nikhil and I Am

[I wrote this a month ago, immediately after seeing the films, and forgot to hit publish. Oops.]

The wonderful Onir has just visited my campus, and by some miracle his films were screened at my actual workplace as the centerpiece of a semester-long series on Indian cinema. I should have seen these films already, especially after realizing at least one friend from the German-speaking Bollywood crew was supporting the development and showings of I Am, but I can't really regret having my first viewing of them be on the big screen followed by a Q&A with the director himself.

My Brother...Nikhil (official site)
To be honest, this did not really impress me as I was watching it, I think mostly because while I recognize how unusual this film is ("might have been"? present tense might be appropriate, because I sure can't name many other films that deal with AIDS in any way) for India—and how absolutely important its presence is—being a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s in the US means I long ago had my fill of certain kinds of portrayals of righteous and sad AIDS stories. I reacted similarly to Udaan, which I think is very well acted but ultimately feels too much like a Lifetime tv movie. I know perfectly well that I'm seeing this film in an utterly different context, but I had a hard time putting aside what I've already seen.

Because it is clearly About Something rather than "timepass, yaaaar," I had been worried that My Brother...Nikhil would be preachy and dull like Amu and Bawandar, which thankfully it is not at all. The reason for that movement and relative lightness, I soon learned in the Q&A, is that Onir deliberately uses tools of mainstream Hindi films—songs, romance, familiar actors, concepts of sin and honor, the centrality of a sibling relationship, the importance of a space defined as home, the valuing of what happens in or in reference to it home and its core family unit—to tell an unconventional story. Which, depending on how you look at it, has some very typical elements: son/brother is torn from family unit, wife is caught between her son and husband, older sibling protects younger one. In retrospect I think it's quite amazing how Onir manages to tell a true and timely true story—in other words, reality—with materials that are so often used for other, even completely opposite, purposes.

There are certain aspects of the film I had to re-think once I learned it's based on real events. The foremost for me is its setting in Goa, very often right on the beach or with the waves audible in the background, which triggers a sense of philosophical distance resulting from association of Goa with holidays (Honeymoon Travels), intoxication (Go Goa Gone, Dum Maro Dum), and not-exactly-good foreigners (Dil Chahta Hai). Goa can reads as not the "us" typically elevated in films, even when it's not flat-out representing drunk and/or promiscuous Catholics. Coincidentally, I had recently asked on Twitter about films, or even scenes, that really use the beach to mean something other than escape/not-normal-life or exoticism/glamour, and not that many suggestions came forward. Seeing a film treat an important topic and story in that setting was unexpected; quite apart from the story itself, I like seeing a different Goa on screen, one with dimensional, settled people in it.

Maybe the most important and moving thing I learned about the film from Onir is that the too-familiar statement that "any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental" at the beginning of the film is there only to satisfy the censors. Instead of stating that the obviously fictional is fictional, this film had to obscure the (maybe surprisingly) real. What cowards those censors must be.

I Am (official site)
I love this movie. Each of the four tales of people dealing with the realities of their identities has its own strengths, but they fit together so well. I hadn't noticed while watching how well-distributed the protagonists and points of view are. Now that I've had time to reflect, I'm struck by the variations in each segment around consistent themes or points: two women, two men; two Hindu, two Muslim; Calcutta, Srinigar, Bangalore, and Bombay; two people about to move forward but two who have new recognition of uneasiness or peril; two hardships because of sad peculiarities of the individuals' lives, two because people belong to targeted vulnerable communities. Each one has artifacts or emblems that embody something important for the characters: a piece of paper that is torn up and thrown away, a mobile phone returned, a tiny kitten, and, my favorite, a snow globe that slips into a suitcase in the place of an urn whose contents have been emptied.

I don't know Bangalore well enough to comment, but other three locations all have landmarks that have unexpected meanings. Flury's in Calcutta is the scene of bitter disagreements instead of sweet treats. The houseboats on the lakes of the Kashmir Valley, the vehicles of togetherness in countless film romances, carry people away when differences seem insurmountable. The Queen's Necklace leads not to fresh ocean air and freedom but to a very dark side street.

Three of the four stories of I Am are like My Brother Nikhil in that they also portray issues that are part of contemporary American culture, yet I responded so differently to them than I did to My Brother Nikhil. Maybe it has to do with the much shorter length of them, as though the short film format encourages economy and restraint that just appeal to me? Or that in trying to fit four films into one project whittles away tonal discrepancies leaving a stronger whole? Or maybe it's the result of a director who is just all-around better on his fourth feature film than he was on his first.

In the Q&A after the film, I was about to ask Onir about writing two stories focused on, and almost entirely told from the point of view of, women—and in contexts other than romance at that—when he reminded us that those two stories are in fact written by a woman (Urmi Juvekar, who has also worked on Oye Lucky and Shanghai). After momentary disappointment that I couldn't add "You wrote multiple competent grown-up women who can think about things other than boyfriends!" to reasons I wanted to hug Onir, I decided to be thrilled that two such good stories were made so well and got to stand with two films that are more male-centered (one so much so that no women appear ["I Am Omar," right?]) to make a whole that is simply about people. And speaking of the women, I know we all expect Nandita Das to be excellent, and she absolutely is, but Juhi Chawla is the standout for me. I'd forgotten until just this very moment how impressive she is in Luck by Chance, which is her most significant non-heroine role I've seen yet and probably the most complex, and she's great here as well, guarded and sad yet also expressing her character's discoveries so movingly. In fact, her performance here is so good that I've found myself thinking over My Brother...Nikhil again to reconsider how she uses her chirpy voice and famous smile in a story that at first doesn't seem to call for them.

It's so hard to discuss I Am without giving away the shape of the stories, and I think watching them unfold and reflect back and forth among each other is a joy you should not miss. It's such a thoughtful film, with not a moment wasted, not a shot out of place. The landscapes, the set design, the wardrobe all contribute to a a real sense of who these characters are and what their worlds are like. Each of these people is in some way a reminder of a challenge or problem that society at large would rather not be reminded of. Early in the film Nandita Das's character, frustrated by having to answer to other people about a personal choice, says something like "Why do I have to spend so much energy explaining myself to you?" I Am isn't simply about explanation (though it does poignantly show the risks and rewards that can come from revealing your true self). It's about putting a face, even a fictionalized one, to events in the news or subsets of society that we think don't impact us. It's a lovely statement of why individuals matter: somebody must speak so the rest of us can learn.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Krrish 3

in summary
Based on the songs and the trailer, I went into Krrish 3 fully expecting a fiasco. Fi-as-co. Everything promoting the film seemed sloppy, thoughtless, or just plain silly. And those are problems that do not  disappear in the context of the entire film, but they are at least evenly matched by some genuine fun. Hirthik's earnestness may be Krrish's (and the franchise's) supreme power—the man can sell anything,* even with his lines and identities split across three (or more, depending on how you count) characterizations. Kangana's enemy mutant is utterly entertaining, the SCIENCE! is spectacular, the sanctity of Indian motherhood is maintained, and a few of the in-world inventions and touches are a nice surprise (at least to someone like me who hasn't seen a ton of recent superhero films). To me Krrish 3 is far from perfect, and like many grandiose projects it has moments of ambition, or at least concept, that are not well served by the execution, but I honestly enjoyed quite a bit of it, and I don't think it's the flaming disaster that I had anticipated (or gathered from the few reviews I read before going to see it for myself).

things I do not like
  • Priyanka's character (Priya) is disposable. Five writers and they still only come up with one decent female role. The underwritten wife/daughter-in-law/representative of us mere mortals means the humanity of the big conflicts is underestimated. I find Priya almost offensively mono-purpose. 
  • Smashy smashy blah blah blah. I'm not sure that having Kaal and Krrish chase each other through glassy skyscrapers is the best of ideas, since Avengers and others have already done that more convincingly. Have them run through Victoria Terminus at least (though if that had happened, I would have said "Hey, Ra.One did that already," so they'd need to be more inventive). 
  • Kaal. Poor Kaal. Not intimidating in the least and not weird enough to be unsettling or even interesting. He suffers from a really long wind-up that doesn't deliver much in the end. Vivek fine? He' the movie and speaks his dialogue slowly in a way I think is supposed to be maniacal? And when his plan finally gets underway, we see him in a less-than-knee-length dressing gown with no trousers, and it's just hilarious. I never realized until that precise moment that it's so much harder to menace with bare legs, especially if the rest of you is wearing drapey satin. 
  • Obviously one does not demand real-world logic of a superhero story; however, internal consistency and sense are not too much to ask. (I won't specify any because they might be considered spoilers, but even major features, like what Krrish's powers are, seem to be inconsistent.) It's easy to imagine this is a casualty of the film's "too many cooks" approach to the script. 
  • Comic relief. I even like Rajpal Yadav (see Main Madhuri Dixi Banna Chahti Hoon if you haven't) but this track is so unnecessary. Can't Rohit be comic relief? Or more of Krishna getting fired because he keeps dashing off from work to save the world?
  •  At times the story feels understaffed, by which I mean anything with a "crowd" or "masses of innocent victims" just isn't full enough to create either grandiosity or threat. The unveiling of the statue...I mean there are more people than that at any given seafront intersection at almost any time of day, right? Never have more backing dancers than audience members unless the song is a seduction or spy number set in the villain's inner sanctum. The mall and the airplane are also sparse, and the versions of Bombay streets that mutants and Krrish fight in/over look desolate yet oddly clean, like their superpowers accidentally sanitized the area before the fight broke out. And all the buildings they chase through (see above) are devoid of workers despite it being daylight hours. It's all too set-piece, which lowers the stakes and thus the excitement.
  • The songs are an embarrassment through and through. I hated them on youtube and they're horrifying when projected 30 feet high. The music itself is blah but to me the culprit here is the choreography. Kangana is reduced to asthmatic baby bird, Priyanka sort of swivels and kicks daintily (perhaps because of her clothes, but obviously that could have be avoided), and Hrithik is lackluster. If Hrithik doesn't want to dance in his films, that's fine, but then why half-ass it? This stuff is just a slap in the face of our hopes, reminding us what we could have enjoyed if someone had done a better job.
  • The idea that superpowers are really just courage and honor and yadda yadda. If that's true then we don't need superheroes or superhero movies, and it's obviously not true, or at least not at all believed or acted upon, since Krrish and Kaal are completely alone in their big battle at the end. Very It's A Wonderful Life: "Krrish is in your house...and your house, and Joe's house, and the Kennedy house, and the MacClaren house, and a hundred others!" There's got to be a better way to uplift us and integrate us in the stand against evil. Of course, in this particular story, Kaal doesn't care about humans at all—he cares only about himself and his lifetime of misery, and anyone who directly affects him—and thus whether they fight back or not is irrelevant to him. (In this regard he's kind of like Ra.One, who is only after that moppet?) So why have Mumbaikars stand up and preach at him in the first place?  
  • As the film started and the obligatory "Any similarity to actual people or events is coincidental" rolled across the screen, I had to laugh at the bold-faced cheek of copying other films that so often goes unacknowledged by the filmmakers. A story based on superheroes who get powers from blue aliens attracted to earth by om vibrations requires a statement that it has nothing to do with real life, but the actual telling of it by using passages from other films gets a pass. How ya like them filmi irony apples?
things I do like
  • Kangana! I've seen very little of her work and am shocked at how much I liked her. Part of it is the role, of course—Kaya has more compelling things to do, think, and say than anyone else in the movie—and Kangana makes Kaya a believable straddler of the animal and human worlds. I am not completely sold on how her character arc develops, but it is done with thought and raises some points about the characterization of women that are fun to chew on.
  • The age makeup/effects on Rohit are surprisingly good. There are a lot of closeups on Hrithik's various faces in this film, and I think they aged him really well. He's also good at making Rohit and Krishna two very separate people, which is an effort I really appreciate. Kaya's creepy doll-eye contacts are effective too.
  • In their public face, the wife has a far better career than the husband. In private, of course, that's not at all the case, not do they have any particular friends or much interaction with anyone outside their family at all, actually, but at least in theory, to everyone other than Rohit, Priya is more stable, professional, and successful than Krishna. This is not at all significant to the plot, but I wonder how common it is.
  • As a balance to my dislike of giving screen time to humans philosophizing at a villain who doesn't care about them or their resistance one way or the other, I really like Krrish sitting down with the little boy he saves and discussing what heroism is. That is a genuine human-superhero interaction that is clearly meaningful to both of them. 
  • Kaya's nail polish that looks like circuits and turns into an actual phone when she does the phone gesture with pinky and thumb near her head. That is very cool (and useful). I also love the sequence of circles of blue light spreading out over the dark cityscape. 
  • There are components of the film that feel like Manmohan Desai is at work—and there might not exist a higher compliment from me than that. The film isn't complex and complicated enough to be Desai, and it doesn't have all the strengths of his finest, but I was delighted to discover that it does have some of the same building blocks. 
  • This review by Ashish Shakya, though I think I like the film more than the author does. And I share his scoffing at the virus.
Ultimately, I am not comfortable calling Krrish 3 either a disaster or a success as a work. It has passages of both, and I think, like Kaal, the creators should have kept experimenting for awhile more, editing to make sure more of the film is in service of Rohit and Krrish versus Kaal, of alien-spiked humans dealing with animal-spiked humans, or even of Kaal's crazed wondering about why he is the way he is. Goose up the villain, re-write the heroine, come up with at least two decent song picturizations, and I think I'd feel a lot more than "meh" about this movie.

Even on opening weekend, I had the cinema to myself, so I tweeted a lot, which you can read here if you are so inclined.

* Except Guzaarish.