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.


Friday, December 26, 2014

PK: if only its teeth were as mighty as its ears

For every point I want to raise about PK, a counterbalance also presents itself. Maybe that explains the runtime. Anushka Sharma and Sushant Singh Rajput's romance is sickly-sweet, yet in the gloss is clear evidence of their physical relationship. A kitten and a puppy are unnecessarily manipulative, but Anushka's crumpling face in moments of disappointment and loss feels bang-on. A devout father's decades of obedience to his guru are shaken too easily, but his revelation leads to satisfyingly improved parenting. There is only one real woman of importance—again, for no necessary reason—and another exists solely to provide the hero with a tool he needs to navigate earth, but the heroine does get to talk about work with a female friend and relies on her for success on the job. Sanjay Dutt's character is homophobic in a way that indicates he has no concept of actual homosexuality (we've all seen men hold hands on the streets in India, writers), but he's otherwise sweet, nonjudgmental, and helpful. I wanted more numerous and more expansive song sequences (I'm one of those odd ducks who likes watching Aamir Khan dance, because I think he uses dance as an extension of his characters and characterizations more than other actors do), but "Tharki Chokro" is perfect visually, musically, choreographically, and narratively. PK's "remote" looks like it was stolen from the Ra.One props trunk, but it's a wonderful nod to the beloved-by-me locket half of golden age masala. Dressing people in "wrong" clothing and yelling "Oho! Gotcha!" to prove that religious identity is not innate but a human construct seems facile, but watching poor PK bumble from one faith practice to another cracks me up—why is it that you're supposed to offer a coconut to a god in a mandir but get thrown out on your ear if you try it in front of a crucifix in a church in the same city?

As far as critiques of oppression and exploitation in the guise of religion go, this is no Mahaparush or Devi, nor is it even Guidewhich is the only Hindi film I have seen that I can recall having anything remotely critical to say about religion or religious figuresBut of course it probably isn't trying to be, either, and I commend Rajkumar Hirani and crew for making an entertaining, relatively light-hearted and supple movie that is actually about something—it actually is a critique of how religion can be used by leaders and worshippers alike to both cover and spoon-fed a multitude of sins. If only it did more. I want more, and I want it to be harsher. These were easy targets taken down easily and with great blobs of cheese. Is the tone gentle because a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine down or because the filmmakers don't want to insult their audiences (or the censor board and the great Indian "sensibilities). Even the title might be read as a cop out: is this outsider right, or is he just drunk? The film can have it both ways. Aamir ex masala machina doesn't really solve much (and does anyone even mention investigating the deadly bomb blast?)—one crooked guru on one tv show isn't an answer to anything, and as others have pointed out (like Uday Bhatia here), this big finish elides into and trades on the reality of the actor's tv career.

As with a few other films of 2014—Bobby Jasoos, Revolver Rani, Gundayand, from what I read, Mary Kom and Mardaanai (which I have not seen yet)—the makers of PK have some better ideas in concept than they do in execution. My gut sense is that the very existence of PK, and involvement in it by such big names, is important and may even be one of the year's significant gifts to the future of mainstream Hindi cinema. This is also a film about humans, looking at why we matter and why we should use our powers to help one another. "Well, at least they tried" (and "grumble grumble censor board and political wingnuts") is an unsatisfying assessment, but when other big names have phoned in even their basic concepts or treated humanity cheaply or failed at even being entertaining, thoughtful effort is no small thing.


Monday, December 15, 2014

mini reviews

100 words each on the weird (even for me) assortment of films I've seen in the last two months. Gotta get the writing motor going again.

Lukochuri 1958
Kishore Kumar has a double role as twins in this Bengali film about the sisters they love,
twin-related mix-ups (surprise), parental approval, and the world of Bombay filmmaking. There are other good performers too (like Mala Sinha), but it's 100% his film. The best moments are the digs at the film industry
and this brilliant, loony song that the non-industry Kishore does while impersonating his singer brother, making a point about the lack of quality in today's films and music.
And lest you forget this is a Bengali film, the eyes of RabTag are upon thee even in Bombay!

Thana Theke Aschi 1965
I don't know how to say anything about this story of death, interrogation, and knowledge without spoiling it, so just know that you should reserve judgement of it until the very last frame.
If you don't speak Bengali (or don't watch with someone who does), you'll probably be incredibly lost. It's director Hiren Nag's first film; his fourth, Andha Atit, discussed below, continues this thoughtful, unconventional-ish use of Uttam Kumar.

Jibon Mrityu 1967
The Bengali original of the Dharmendra and Rakhee film of the same name, which I have seen twice and cannot remember anything about other than the two leads having a fun classroom debate and Dharmendra's disguises. Beyond the emo suffering and revenge-seeking by Uttam Kumar and the sparks he has in the romantic bits with Supriya Debi*, this version, also by Hiren Nag (his second film), doesn't stand out to me either. Aside: I find the Uttam-to-Dharmendra conversion fascinating—it makes little sense on paper, yet it works. Does it happen elsewhere in addition to Chadmabeshi/Chupke Chupke?

Sansar 1971
Another subtitle-less Soumitra film, apparently about industrial espionage with contrasting depictions of class (?)
Much of the runtime is spent in people's homes, and I like comparing these interiors and what they suggest about the characters. In these pairs, the left shows the middle-class family's home (the inventors of the textile equipment in the cycle rickshaw above) and the right, their bosses'. One plays music live, the other has a groovy hi-fi. One comforts each other, one clutches a fluffy lap dog.

Enjoy the Many Moods of Soumitra: relaxed, annoyed, action sequence, and menacing with a hockey stick.
Soumitra + sports equipment = cognitive dissonance.

Andha Atit 1972
Evidence that Uttam Kumar was not afraid to let himself age beyond romantic lead and simplistically heroic behavior...which is not to say this is his finest acting, because it certainly isn't. It's an interesting little mystery that spans about ten years and weaves together personal dramas that don't seem to relate. I had no idea where it was going. Supriya Debi is good as his determined, distressed wife.
Warning: if you watch this on the Angel youtube channel, be aware that the description on each upload has major spoilers.

Bond 303 1985
I simply do not buy Jeetendra as a spy, but this film is so full of other delights that I can overlook him. Plenty of bleep-bloop equipment, Parveen Babi bursting through a ceiling and kicking ass, vengeful Helen, a mangy bear-suit monster,
and Tom Alter being named Tom Alter. When a magician conjures up a backing band wearing black capes emblazoned with skulls, there is vast glee both in the thing itself and in the realization that there are still such wonders waiting to be discovered.
Not quite Wardat, but fun—and recommended.

Classic Dance of Love 2005
Babbar Subhash has directed Mithun in films like Disco Dancer, Dance Dance, and Commando, all terrible in their own way yet not a patch on this. Mithun has advanced into villain,
a hypocritical guru type who teaches people to eschew sensual pleasures to be successful, leaving "hero" open to this guy, who is utterly unqualified to attempt advanced filmi tasks like mesh shirts and arm-flings.
Sexuality is a weapon in this movie, used against and by women. It's an okay idea for a story, but there's zero chemistry, and the continual leering over the heroine's body feels exploit-y.

Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5) 2012 (?)
Five stories are linked by a 500 note. There are passages when this film is far too on-the-nose—a madman standing all alone in frame after frame shouting his manifesto about the evils of money before political thugs arrive to bludgeon him—but when it focuses on what 500 can mean to different people, it's pretty interesting. The middle segment about a confident young woman who values her friends's needs over workplace rules and demands is the most subtle and compelling.

Revolver Rani 2014
At this point, the only thing that could make me want to see another corrupt politician from a Hindi-speaking non-metropolis is flipping something in the formula, so the idea of Revolver Rani is attractive. I'm not sure the film contains and supports all that goes into and out of Kangana's wild, violent, passionate Rani.
The film does not question a woman running in a man's world or cornering a male love interest in ways heroines often get treated,
but what is intended as complexity feels like scattered pieces (I wrote "Gabbar Singh/Miss Piggy/Lucille Ball" in my notes).

Happy New Year 2014
Save for a few very precise, specific moments—the Shalimar nod, Abhishek's snake dance, Sonu Sood at the steam pipes, the giant Indian flag on the jumbotron, SRK handing Jackie Shroff a [spoiler]—HNY disappoints me. SRK's character is a total ass (such hatred that movie expressed for Deepika's character's vocation and social position), Boman's too clownish, and everyone's underdeveloped. Thieves hiding as dancers is a great concept for a filmi spectacular, but here the heist and the dance competition distract from one another somehow. Come on, Farah.

* I know.