Sunday, August 30, 2015

Khoobsurat (2014)

No one is more surprised than I am that I like this film so much. I am on record repeatedly as loathing Sonam Kapoor as an actor and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in general; I'm no fan of the House of Mouse; I merely like (not love) the original but would never have chosen Sonam to do a Rekha role; I don't find Mr. Darcy/Grumpy Pants type characters automatically attractive; and I don't even have Fawad Fever.
(Though I developed it while viewing, obviously.)
But here we are. Maybe I'm just in the mood for some dil-squish, but Khoobsurat's romance is delightful and resonant and believable despite trading in major tropes. As friend Vishal says, it earns all its filmy moments. It helps very much that the characters are actual adults: they're responding to innate desire and affection rather than unsettling passion or any non-self-determined need for a romantic partner, which cuts down the drama considerably. They are sad without each other, but nobody does anything self-destructive when they separate.
How unbelievably refreshing to have a buttoned-up, "respectable" man and a woman (any woman) express sexual desire without censure from outside!

I love that the film is willing to show the drawbacks and benefits of both of their personalities and temperaments and is harsh to neither. We viewers know Vikram and all the Rahtores need to lighten up and let go (and will do so), but we also see all sorts of signs of their success and, for the most part, functionality.
This is not the typical movie Rajput family of generations of enmity and violence (and the writers hilariously give the requisite line about "I'm a Rajput! I'm fierce!" to the quiet teenage girl). Their house is not dusty with the weight of history or dissipation, and their staff works efficiently and is part of the modern world. They're not bad people—they're just hurting.

Mili, for her part, definitely doesn't fit in, but she also doesn't give in. She appears to be a MPDG, but she's an actual woman (not girl) and it is her profession to help people, not her special mission just for one sad sack of a man; she will survive the film, not make his cure her swan song. The person she falls for is one level removed from the person she's most directly trying to serve—the romance is collateral benefit to her actual purpose. Mili also brings to bear the other great Bollywood regional stereotype without any literal balle balle, and her mother is blunt and loud without reverting to utter Punjabi Maa hysterics (given what we've seen Kiron Kher do elsewhere in roles of similar demographics, that's impressive).

Mili and Vikram are certain enough of themselves that they are well poised to collaborate as a couple. Yes, they're different, but they know it, and they also know how to navigate conflicts, at least in their professional lives, and they have learned how to compromise. The best part of the Bridget Jones's Diary movie for me has always been Mark Darcy telling Bridget he loves her just as she is, and Khoobsurat offers the same joy.
What a freedom that is, to be accepted for who you are, including your innate potential to improve and adjust within yourself. Love is not being identical to another person; love is understanding them. "Love is not just looking at each other, it's looking in the same direction" (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), and these two have the same desires, not just for each other but for the other people in their worlds. We also know that they listen to each other; he takes her advice after weighing it and finding it beneficial, and she is attuned to what other people feel and tries to act on it.

Mili actually says she'd prefer to be alone than deal with men who want her to be someone she isn't, and by the time we meet her in the story she seems to have stopped taking "we have nothing in common" as criticism. She is comfortable enough in her own skin to to just be her own, different self even when her oddness is remarked upon by a colleague and a high-powered client. That is an amazing feat for any human, especially a female character in popular media. A heroine who gives zero f*cks but is also a kind person, someone who wants to participate in things but doesn't let them drag her down. Perhaps that's because, as another twitter friend pointed out, Mili's family loves and respects her. Like in Queen, we see what women can do and how happy they can be when they have a genuinely supportive system behind them.

I think it could be argued that Vikram does (and, it is implied, will do) more changing, but I think we also don't know what Vikram was like before [spoiler backstory], so we don't know what his deep-down self is or prefers to be. Besides, Mili's influence and actualskillsextend just as much to Vikram's family as to him as an individual. In both her professional and personal capacities, she helps the system of which he is (and wants to remain) a part and which he values.

There is so much Khoobsurat does in telling this admittedly predictable story that is special. First, SNEHA KHANWALKAR ZINDABAD! Her music is largely unexpected in this context, mirroring Mili herself, and I love it. Second, the film is just so beautiful to look at. The palatial architecture and interiors are just as gorgeous as they always are in films in Rajasthan, but somehow they seem a little more human-scale here, perhaps because we see them through Mili's undaunted eyes and she quickly makes them her own. Third, everyone's acting really is wonderful. I haven't seen any of Fawad Khan's tv work but here he is the type of actor who can probably have chemistry with a lamp post; by some miracle, Sonam Kapoor is expressive and exuberant without being ridiculous, even when her character feints that direction. They're a great pair. When he relaxes and she calms down, there is a space between them that feels so loving. Fourth, the clothes. He is all smooth surfaces and class; she is all color and chaos. I'm sure it's unrealistic that a doctor would dress as she does, especially when working in the already not-as-professional setting of someone's home, but it seems consistent with her character. (We know she can wear something more work-like; in the opening segment in the cricket match she's wearing a team shirt.) Fifth, the other characters are used very well, just enough to add useful context and texture without distracting. There really isn't a B plot in this film, and vah vah to a creative team for knowing it doesn't need one. Sixth, the inner monologue voiceovers by the lead characters are so funny and honest, and the contrast they create with what the characters actually say out loud to other people feels very, very real. They underscore how hard it can be to say what you really think, whether you appear to be all Mili-impulse or all Vikram-control.

Reader, I bought the DVD. 2014 was a good year for rom-coms, what with this, Humpty SharmaHasee Toh Phaseeand Happy Ending. I know a lot of you didn't care for it, but Khoobsurat
delights me. Shashanka Ghosh brings a performance out of Sonam Kapoor that is by leaps and bounds a career best. I almost want to call this film candy floss for how sweet it is, but don't sell Khoobsuratshort: it actually has a lot of important things to say about self-knowledge, self-confidence, healing pain, and reserving judgment, and it says them with remarkable gentleness and fun.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015


In yet another attempt to be safety buddies during movies we fear are too violent to watch on our own, last week Filmi Geek and I watched Badlapur. Just like Gangs of Wasseypur, neither of us expected the movie to be our cup of tea, but nevertheless we found other interesting things in it as it went along. I'm not too surprised about, given how much I like the director's other films and all of the leads. The performances may be what I take away from Badlapur (and casting too, for that matter, especially the contrasting-in-every-way Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Varun Dhawan); I would not change a thing about how this script was enacted and visualized.

Carla: As you know, this is a genre I normally don't expect to like much. I decided to watch Badlapur, though, because I found this year's other revenge drama, NH10, startlingly affecting. Going outside of my comfort zone for NH10 was rewarding in a way I hadn't expected. So that, combined with the great praise Badlapur had received from many, made me curious enough to give it a look.
Beth: And what had led you to watch NH10?
Carla: I have to laugh a little, because the answer is: some folks from my Hindi practice group were going, so I decided to go along with them, I'd probably watch almost anything with friends.
Beth: Watching with friends makes almost anything bearable. Except Dance Dance, as we learned the hard way.
Carla: Haha, I was just thinking about that Dance Dance day too. What made you want to watch Badlapur?
Beth: I wanted to watch it because 1) I'm trying harder to keep up with new releases this year (I have some more momentum now that we get most of the big releases in the regular multiplex), 2) I like Varun and Nawaz, 3) I like the director's other films, and 4) ditto hearing good things.
Carla: All very good reasons. I want to talk about your expectations going in, because I have been having a hard time thinking about Badlapur as the film it is, rather than the film I expected or wanted it to be.
Beth: I was in India when it came out, so I heard quite a bit about it, including from Amrita and other friends who saw it. I knew about the revenge rape and I remember there being some discussion about its treatment of women overall. So I knew it wasn't necessarily going to be a film for me, really, but I was intrigued.

Carla: I want to talk about that rape, but I also want to hear your thoughts on the broader question, the treatment of women in general in the movie.
Beth: I was saying to another friend who has also seen it that I have cautiously semi-arrived at the idea that the film is just flat-out anti-humanity in many ways, women being a subset of that.
Carla: Yes, I agree, it is very, very bleak.
Beth: I'm not sure it does much to women that it doesn't do to anyone else, with the exception of sexual violence, because of @*&%$ course it has that. And it does actually have a man sexually menace a man, sort of, doesn't it? (Note: not the same as rape.) But still, the writers made that choice, and I don't know why. It's not like they did it to be titillating as some other films do. It was just a mark of the lead's descent, I guess. But unnecessary.
Carla: I'm not convinced that they didn't put it in there just to be titillating.  On the one hand, the movie is, in some ways, about male violence, about toxic masculinity. And male violence, when turned toward women, more often than not takes on the dimension of sexual violence. So the movie maybe has plausible deniability to say it's merely documenting what toxic masculinity does.
Beth: Like we don't already know! Badlapur=#YesAllMen.
Carla: On the other hand, yes, we all know this about male violence—we don't need a film to document it for us.
Beth: Just read a newspaper.
Carla:  And it happens so early in the film, that I question whether it's legitimately showing descent. Indeed, my main difficulty with the film as a whole is that it never shows any descent.
Beth: So there's descent and then there's snap. The further I get from the discomfort of watching the film, the more I am willing to give it "snap."
Carla: Yes, I think that's more what it is going for—snap rather than slow burn or spiral.
Beth: It's not like this was a super upstanding man with tons of community connections etc etc. (For example, the famous commercial that he’s saying is his idea—I’m not sure if that’s just a fun pop culture reference or if the writers are setting him up as a [time-traveling] plagiarist.) He was a dudebro. And I'm not saying it's easier for dudebros to snap, but he had less far to fall on a matrix of movie heroics.
You pointed out his immediate isolation after the crime; maybe that's when it happened. He can't even look at other people.
Carla: Not just that he can't—but no one steps up to force him to.
Beth: This is not someone weeping into comforting arms (which were there for him). He is not helped by humanity.
Carla: I was shocked by that when we were watching—everyone just says "sorry, bro" and files out. His family and friends abandon him to his grief.
And I think I said to you, wow, I would not leave my friend alone at home the evening of the day he loses his wife and kid. I just would not.
Beth: Although I guess we don't know if those people are actually gone or if he just doesn't interact with them?
Carla: I suppose I'd have to watch it again, but the impression I was left with on first watch is of a lot of people patting him on the shoulder on their way out the door. Next he's alone in the kitchen with the leftovers.
Beth: Oh the leftovers—that was so sad. His parents and in-laws are around somewhere, but the result is: he has no one.

Carla: And later he voluntarily isolates himself. For 15 years. In "revengetown".
Beth: I think we discussed while watching that it's kind of too bad we don't know what happens to him in those 15 years, whether he tries to put his life back together. But again, the result is: nope, he's a wreck.
Carla:I'd say there is no evidence that he made any effort. He did nothing but stew in his own juices for that whole time. I rather wish the film had shown us some of that time. The isolation seems to have allowed him to fester and get angrier, rather than healing and gaining any distance. But we are left to speculate about it based on very little.
Beth: I assume we're not supposed to see him as particularly human either, and this stalling and isolation helps make him seem that way? Or is it a cautionary tale—if this happens to you, DO NOT CLOSE OFF or else!
Carla: He's clearly unsympathetic and, as a result at least to me, not particularly relatable.
Beth: He's awful and somehow allowed to stay that way. People who should help him do not. On this point, I reeeeeally hated Divya's character. It was interesting to write such a tone-deaf person who supposed to be kind of a care-giver, an NGO do-gooder type is actually destructive.
Carla: That is an interesting point. I had seen her through the lens of being a victim of his psychopathic manipulation.
Beth: That too. I just think that one conversation with this man is enough to show you that he is in no place to issue any mercy, and she most definitely provoked him. Not that that means she deserves to be his pawn. But he was her pawn too (for less awful purposes, obviously).
Carla: I don't agree that he was a pawn to Divya's character. To use someone as a pawn you have to have some power, and she has none.
Beth: Ok. But she sure tries. She tries to guilt him.
Carla: She is naive, and too focused on her do-gooding to think through his responses to her and what they mean. But she has no power. To the extent she can manipulate him, it's only through that application of conscience—guilt as you say. That's a very weak hand.
Beth: If she had been _his_ social worker, that would have been an utterly different scenario. As is, she waltzes in and asks him for something incredibly difficult without knowing the first thing about him. So he's her tool, not her pawn, maybe?
Carla: Sure, that's a better way to put it. She is naive and idealistic in a way that makes her insensitive.
Beth: And pushy too.
Carla: And it also makes her too trusting, which gives him the opening he needs to play her.

Beth: Let's talk about the performances. I thought they were across the board really quite good.
Even if just for that, I'm glad I saw the film.
Carla: I have to say, I could watch Huma and Nawaz as a couple in anything, despite neither this nor Gangs of Wasseypur being a favorite of mine.
Beth: No age difference yuck for you? She’s 12 years younger.
Carla: Not especially; perhaps because she has a maturity about her or because he manages a certain boyish demeanor even when playing these deeply sociopathic character. Perhaps 12 years by itself would only be yuck when the woman is so young as seem girlish or ingenue-type?
Beth: I don't know. I'm not really on board with them as a concept but neither of these relationships is at all...nice or good.
Carla: No that's for sure. I just find them compelling to watch.
Beth: Totally. Both of them are great. But e.g. Deepika is the same age as Huma, and Deepika with Nawaz would just be BIZARRE. I don't know why.
Carla: That's interesting. I can't say I disagree. But Deepika has (cultivated?) a more girlish demeanor.
I have said about her before and continue to say that I am interested in her as an actor but really want to see what she does on the other side of 30. Also Deepika has a more refined quality, even when she's playing rougher-hewn women, that doesn't match well with Nawaz's physicality, maybe?

Beth: What other strengths does Badlapur have for you?
Carla: Well, we did have a little talk about forgiveness while we were watching, and as you said it's interesting that the film provoked those thoughts. Do you want to talk about that a bit more?
Beth: Sure! It's something that I have been thinking about as a result of all the just horrendous news we've had in the last few years. I really do not know what we are supposed to do at a societal or even individual level with some of the evil in the world. And for me that is what made this movie more interesting than just "BTW revenge is hollow, did you know?" To be a successful human do you have to be able to hold the concept of evil in one hand and not let it shape you to much with the other?
You do not have to forgive, but you cannot give in, either? The movie ends before we know how Varun will deal with that. Revenge as a concept is less interesting to me but forgiveness is something we all have to deal with even if just in little ways.
Carla: That's true. I'm going to speculate that he deals with it badly.
Beth: I assume so. I would not be surprised if he committed suicide, actually.
Carla: Yeah, I was thinking the same. Although that song over the closing credits (tone lurchy though it was) showed him continuing in his anger and defiance.
Beth: It's pretty fascinating that a mainstream film is unafraid to have its hero left on a moral knife's edge like that. But that song is so out of place. Maybe he'll dance it out.
Carla: Haha!
Beth: Debbie Allen is in the corner tapping her cane on the floor.
Carla: You raise a great point, though. I often like it when movies end with something other than facile resolution, like when a story of a troubled marriage ends on a note of hope but with implicit acknowledgement that there is a still work to be done. It's not all that common in mainstream films (of any industry).
Beth: Yeah, or all those 70s films we love where the hero actually has taken revenge and the bad guy is in handcuffs and then everyone literally lines up in a row, as though they're on stage and are taking a bow.
Carla: And so there is no resolution for him, and no note of hope either. The only constant is utter bleakness.
Beth: I tend not to like it when movies  just stop rather than conclude, but it made sense here.
Carla: It was not a conclusion, but also not a mere stop either—it was a turning point, a change in his world.
Beth: It also underscores that taking revenge does not make you a better person, which is another thing movie heroes tend to sort of swim in.
Carla: There's nothing honorable about this revenge.
Beth: No.
Carla: That was true in NH10 as well. The revenge is not so much satisfying as horrifying.
Beth: Even though he is utterly blameless in the tragedy—it's not like he was aligned with the wrong politician or even tried to save a friend who had gone off the straight and narrow and got sucked in—and it had zero meaning. Maybe that's why the revenge has no meaning? The thing it is avenging had no meaning. Hmmmm.
Carla: Well that brings us back to the Gangs of Wasseypur, the-cycle-of-violence-is-pointless idea. Everyone blind and toothless, etc.
Beth: And there it's armies, more or less, and here it's just...nothing.

Carla: The thing about Varun's character's spree is that it is not merely revenge.
Beth: More of a dismantling and erasing?
Carla: His violence extends beyond hurting the people who hurt him; he hurts the people they love, too. Yes, it's an obliteration. And that is part of what makes it totally anti-righteous, the complete opposite of classic filmi hero revenge. By coincidence I recently watched another revenge drama, an older one that is much more in the righteous revenge mode. That was Anjaam, in which Shah Rukh Khan ruins Madhuri Dixit's life after she rejects his advances, murdering her husband and framing her for the crime.
Beth: Does she take him down?
Carla: She snaps, about three-quarters of the way through the film, after enduring and enduring and enduring (with lots of talk about how enduring injustice is women's superpower)
Beth: Eyeroll.
Carla: Yes, a whole tray of them.
Beth: I was just thinking "I bet this movie was made ca. 1994" and sure enough.
Carla: She kills the (female) prison warden who had been pimping out the prisoners, she kills her brother-in-law who had just been horrible from the very beginning and eventually she also gets Shah Rukh Khan—she finds him catatonic in a hospital, and actually nurses him back to health and makes him think she has fallen in love with him just for the pleasure of knowing he has full awareness of her hatred when she kills him.
Beth: Whoa!
Carla: It's actually a pretty interesting dovetailing of nurturer-type womanhood with death-goddess-type womanhood.
Beth: What could be more terrifying to a Bollywood hero than a woman being maa-like and then killing him instead?
Carla: That's what is so interesting about it. She lulls him by playing into his own fantasy of how a woman, and especially this particular woman, should treat him.
Beth: That sounds pretty interesting. I like evil SRK performances a lot.
Carla: I've gotten a bit off topic talking about Anjaam but I've been thinking about how it compares to Badlapur and NH10 in its statements about revenge, especially. As it occupies that classical (for lack of a better word) space in which revenge is pure and righteous, it is a very different story from the revenge dramas of 2015, which are all about bleakness and damage. But like NH10, Anjaam shows how a good and ordinary and relatable person can turn into a bloodthirsty force, when pressed hard enough and forced to endure enough extreme suffering.
Beth: I did not see Ek Villain last year, which I mention only because it's the other recent revenge film I can think of.
Carla: I also did not. How about the end of Mardaani?
Beth: Ooooh which I liked, against my beliefs about how the real world should work.
Carla: Yes, I can see that—one of those satisfying in the movies even though it's morally wrong sorts of things.
Beth: And it to me felt very much like something 70s Amitabh would have done. Speaking of, sort of, another recent revenge movie is the Agneepath remake, which I also didn’t care for story-wise.
Carla: Another one I did not watch.
Beth: It is not a type that appeals to either of us, really. Our next movie should be something that DOES appeal to us.
Carla: AMEN. We have broadened our horizons together quite enough lately.
Beth: Indeed.

Carla:  Anything else to say about Badlapur, to wrap?
Beth: I love that the sketch artist is led to draw Ranjeet.
Carla: That was a great moment. I don't think I can top that.