Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sulemani Keeda

Great Expectations indeed.
My not-wholly-positive reaction to this film is partly an issue of my own expectation management. I realllllly wanted to like it; as its director-writer Amit Masurkar has pointed out, movies about movies pay little attention to writers, even though various industry types like to give lip service to the importance of story and there'd be nothing to produce, act in, or promote if there weren't scripts. How could a small, non-YRF-type film made about struggling film writers be less than hilarious and pointed?

Unfortunately, this is a film full of male assholes being assholes and then whining about how hard it is to succeed in a male-dominated world. DO SHUT UP. It's another instance of the young, relatively privileged male experience being assumed universal and apparently without any acknowledgment of other perspectives (which is how I felt about the otherwise adorable Big Hero 6 too, incidentally). Whether this is realistic to the world the film is portraying or not, it stinks. The women—primary love interest Ruma, side arc love interest Oona—are there just to reflect back men's ambitions, needs, and emotions or prompt men to experience the turmoil and soul-searching required as creative fuel for their own success. Think about it: do women in this film do anything that isn't in service to males? A mutual friend introduces Ruma to Dulal and Mainak, Dulal's mother provides cooking instructions over the phone, the silky-haired heroine in the producer's movie about a tough cop (spoiler-y image from this is at the end of the post), and even the unseen woman heard on a DVD of Last Tango in Paris from Mainak's laptop is in male-scripted sexual ecstasy consumed by men. Ruma, the one notable female character, is a whole person with plans and dreams of her own that don't involve any men at all, but we only see her through the eyes of Dulal. He rifles through her bedroom when she's out. She asks him more questions than he asks her. So boring. Sulemani Keeda is an unfortunate contrast in a year when big-scale films actually did put some thought, creativity, and focus on female roles and actors.

There is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to tell a story about males, and as male Twitter users love to remind me every time I bring up this topic, males are people too, so why can't they be representatives of the human experience? I agree that they can, but that argument ignores the reality in which most stories around the world exist and get told. There is something very wrong when men (and privileged members of a dominant culture at that) are assumed to be the default representatives and conveyers of the human experience. Filmi Geek and I were talking about this tendency, and she pointed out that when most of the stories you consume reflect you, it's hard to notice that other people aren't reflected. And of course this one film is only responsible for its own version of the "male experience=only/all experience" problem, not every other film's indulgence in it (though it is certainly contributing to the problematic tradition that films of the future will inherit), but somehow I have snapped. What Sulemani Keeda tells me is that even men whose profession is to create won't imagine a world with human-like women in it.

Granted, Dulal and Mainak are hardly in a position to use their imaginations freely. Despite their pretensions, they are the lowest of the low, groveling to studio office guards and having to feebly ask for money for their work because of course nobody hiring them bothers to offer or explain payment or give them an actual contract (they're even punished for asking). They're in a line of work that is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. When it comes to creativity, they're clearly no better off making either of the options shown in the film (European-inspired "outside the box" or formulaic crap, both for a producer's kid) than the tv writers they disdain.

Observation of the film industry is Sulemani Keeda's strong suit, and it has some assured, funny, and important moments. I want a 20-minute version of this film that is only the guys bumbling through the industry; this part of their lives is much more empathetic and interesting. Some of the depictions of writer life are familiar from various people I have run across online, most notably people who call themselves writers but take every excuse not to do any work (#amwriting) and present themselves in the most slacker-ass ways to people they need to impress. I can easily read Mainak as largely a figure of ridicule. I love how he uses book stores to hit on women without paying any attention to what book he's actually holding and later proudly proclaims that he's a writer, not a reader. The more public scenes of socializing are also familiar (that poor girl and her response to Tagore [oh, she counts as a woman who's just doing her own thing with no need for male reaction! yay!], the appearance of a plaid fedora at the end of the film), and I am so very, very glad that I am too old to have to deal with people in settings like that and I pity the good souls who do.

Despite the anger that burbled over in the beginning of this post, there are other things I really like about Sulemani Keeda. It's interesting to look at, especially the Bombay streets and the inside of the Mainak and Dulal's flat, because of course they have a DVD of Udaan and The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics.
All the music makes sense, and "Sarangi Blues" is lovely and feels genuinely contemplative. The acting is pretty darn great—I really believe all of these people, which is part of what is so frustrating about them—and the cameos by real industry figures are funny and pleasingly random, showing how project relevance is not necessarily a consistent factor in the life of a flailing writer. I even like the bleakness: at least for dudes like Mainak and Dulal, whose actual talents are never really commented on or made clear to us, if you're floundering in The System, you may have to either give in or get out. Like Anupama Chopra says, the letdown here is, ironically, the script.

If you want to see Sulemani Keeda without leaving your house, it's available on Amazon Instant (at least in the US—I'm not sure about other countries). I've just spent some time digging around for legal streaming options, particularly for recent Hindi releases, and I'm pleased to report that I found more than I had expected. Netflix only has a handful of newer things, but there's also Hulu (again, only a few), Amazon Instant, Spuul, Eros Now, and more impressively, iTunes and Google Play. I'm most excited about this last one; combined with it not requiring a subscription and having a longer rental period than iTunes (at least on the films I've compared), I'm choosing it for catching up on several other films that came out in 2014. (Again, I have no idea if these services are available outside the US or what they might offer. It'd be great to form a master list somewhere.)

For fun, a spoiler-y image from a film within the film. Read the credits.



Share:

9 comments :

Carol said...

"Filmi Geek and I were talking about this tendency, and she pointed out that when most of the stories you consume reflect you, it's hard to notice that other people aren't reflected."

For the past few years, I've been thinking a lot about how being able to only consume stories that reflect you and people like you can be crippling. As you guys note, it creates such a sense of entitlement to such stories that can be completely invisible because they're just how stories are, right? But I also think it limits and stunts imagination and empathy and creates weird defensiveness about deviation from the "relatable" or "universal" character and any kind of difference. It's where the whole issue of "relatable" characters becomes hugely problematic. And we end up with Hollywood's rule that women will watch movies about men and identify with male characters, but men won't. (Or again, in a Hollywood context, people of color will watch movies with white protagonists in every genre, but studios have a limited sense of what genres white people will watch people of color act in).

(You might be amused to know that I wrote a bit about this at The Cultural Gutter in the context of Planet Of The Apes stories).

Miranda said...

Y'all are making interesting points. "Relatable" is such an oddly man-made (pun-maybe-intended) definition, right? If we only cared about characters like ourselves, we would never read about anyone who wasn't like us, nor would we care what happened to someone fictional or non-sapien. But Glee and OITNB show that the majority of Americans [clearly] are interested in stories with people of different sexuality and ethnicity.

I dunno, maybe the majority of Americans aren't "relating" to these characters, but rather are entertained by them? But also, maybe that's good enough. In the case of Hindi cinema, I'd settle for letting women being entertaining, period.
It's annoying that Bollywood seems to think women are interesting on a stage but not at a desk or at an easel. The only filmi female artists that come to mind right now are Rakhee/Dimple in alcoholic single women roles. There's this sense of "how could a woman be functional AND be creative?" Even Aiyyaa which passes muster in so many ways has men being the intellectual/artistic types.

Miranda said...

Altho, maybe part of the problem is that filmi stories expect women to be the functional gender, and if you add the assumption that all artists are dysfunctional in some way, then it wouldn't be an *appropriate* female path.

Movie Maven Gal said...

Beth, love your blog.

I have also been searching for newer releases, and you're right that there are many surprising places to find them. I did subscribe to Eros Now, but they have rotating free movies, too. I didn't expect Hulu to have any, but they do have a smattering.

If you're not aware of the review site Access Bollywood (written by a non-Indian in Naperville, IL), she has added a new feature keeping track of which films are available for streaming on Netflix: http://accessbollywood.net/bollywood-movies-streaming-on-netflix/

She posts when new films become available on the service, and importantly, which films are leaving which is handy for to get my butt in gear for films I've been meaning to see.

Beth Watkins said...

Miranda - A small point, but I don't agree with you about Aiyyaa: while the heroine isn't particularly creative in terms of being a creator (she's plenty imaginative, of course), her female friend/colleague is off the charts levels of creative (and imaginative)!

Diptakirti Chaudhuri's trivia book has a list of artist characters in it and names only Raakhee in Kasme Vaade...plus Sonakshi in Lootera paints, but it's not her career. I've also seen Sonam as a painter in a Telugu film. But yeah, not terribly common, even within the also not terribly common occurrences of artists in Indian films. This has me wondering if women in this line of work show up proportionally as often as they do in other lines of work like "industrialist" or the MBA in an office doing something or other that involves being at a desk and answering their phone.

Beth Watkins said...

Hi Movie Maven Gal - Thanks! Yes, I have known of Access Bollywood for some time. It's super easy to see what's available on netflix since I'm on that site multiple times a week and they sort by country so easily (or is it by language? can't remember). I have a much harder time getting itunes to show me EVERYTHING that's from India, though maybe there's a trick I haven't discovered.

Timothy Liebe said...

Beth - do you ever read SF writer John Scalzi's blog? Your comments tie into a famous/notorious post of his entitled "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is" - where he addresses male entitlement issues in the terms of video gameplay. It's actually really great, and I highly recommend it to anybody concerned about these issues - http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/ .

This premise, BTW, reminds me a bit of a comedy starring Akshaye Khanna and Arshad Warsi, SHORT KUT- where a nice, Clark Kent like Bollywood writer-director (Khanna) writes a genius script which his scrounging actor roommate (Warsi) steals and passes off as his own, and the writer-director is so despondent his flushes his marriage to a movie star (Amrita Rao) and sinks into alcoholism for a time. (Yeah, it's a comedy.)

Beth Watkins said...

Thank you for the link! That looks great!

I tried to watch Shotkut but bailed after about 20 minutes, despite my affection for the Khanna family. It's a remake of Bowfinger, I think (which I haven't seen either)?

Timothy Liebe said...

Not quite a BOWFINGER rip - though the ending certainly has some similarities.

It wasn't a very good film, honestly - if we'd been further along in our Bollywood watching we probably would have turned it off 20 minutes in, but we were still fairly new to it all and stuck it out anyway. I kind of felt like it was three different premises not well fused together - the BOWFINGER type elements, the idea of a bunch of clownish hangers-on trying to make a movie, and the "Talent Getting Screwed Over By Ambition" comedy. I suggested to Meetu (Meeta Kabra) as the Without Giving the Movie Away website (http://www.wogma.com/ ) that maybe the movie would have been better if Arshad Warsi's character hasn't been an irredeemable sleaze, but a half-talented hustler trying to do right by his friend who (accidentally) catapulted him to stardom, and always managed to make a hash of it somehow! (I will admit we all went, "Circuit, how COULD you...?" while watching SHORT KUT - we'd already seen MUNNA BHAI, MBBS by that time, and had been much taken with the lovable "goons" played by Sanjay Dutt and Warsi.)