Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hemlock Society

[Vaguely spoiler-y. Also, if suicide is a trigger topic for you, I can imagine this film may come off as blasé, simplistic, or even offensive.]

I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the path of popular, mainstream Bengali movies from the Suchitra-Uttam films of the 50s to today's remakes of Telugu masala, and I wonder if Hemlock Society and its ilk—less loud and macho than the Telugu remakes, not as heavily message-driven as art films—are the most faithful descendants. The name alone indicates that this film is About an Important Aspect of the Human Condition, but it's also funny, dynamic, and at moments very sweet. Director-writer Srijit Mukherji is responsible for a few of these kinds of films; I've seen the interesting but imperfect Autograph and the maybe-good-on-paper-but-actually-eye-roll-y Baishe Srabon.*

Hemlock Society quickly develops a sense of an increasingly bizarre and slightly dream-like subculture, full of kooky minor characters, within the "real" world it first establishes. It pushes this new weirdnesses to some interesting extremes with humor that keeps the overall feeling a little off-kilter, neither as dark nor as saccharine as I thought it might become. The film acknowledges suicide as a complicated issue and in doing so creates characters who spend a lot of energy processing thoughts and emotions. Doubt and confusion are central to many of these people.

Meghna (Koel Mallick, whom I know only from countless song sequences from the afore-mentioned Telugu remakes and who has the most enviable ocean of dark, wavy, shampoo-commercial-worthy hair) is dumped by her terrible fiancé and instantly turns to attempts at suicide (we later find out her relationship with her dad and stepmom is strained and that she's having a hard time at work, too), only to be interrupted by Ananda (Parambrata Chatterjee), who barges into her apartment under the pretense of looking for terrorists.
Ananda is clearly a loon—practically a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, though the flip in gender in that dynamic instantly makes it somewhat less annoying, as do his breezy attitude and humor. Not the least of his quirks is constantly referencing Hindi films, an unusual trait for a Bengali film character in my experience. But he tells Meghna what she wants to hear, affirming that suicide is a rational response to an upset life. He then shares that he works with a secret organization that teaches people how to actually make it through the misrepresented and complex process of killing themselves effectively. She allows him to take her to the Society's training facility, which sits on the same grounds as Ananda's film studio (he inherited a lot of money and has indulged in various projects). At the end of the film, it becomes clear that there's a connection of ideals between the two campuses, but most of the time the proximity of the dream factory just reminds us how unrealistic the Hemlock Society seems.
The film studio also provides a reason for a cameo by Bengali action hero Jeet, a frequent co-star of Koel Mallick.
If you are a more alert viewer than I am, or even just a bigger fan of Rajesh Khanna movies, you might realize that a very upbeat, fillum-obsessed character named Anand(a) who helps the droopy and despondent probably means that this film is not actually saying that suicide is a good idea. I have not seen Anand, but from what I read there are indeed some commonalities with that film. I won't go into them, but let's just say that I was uncertain what direction Hemlock Society was going to go and to what purpose for much longer than I should have been.

I'm actually glad I didn't figure out the film earlier because wondering what exactly was going on is a pleasing experience. I love black comedies, and this film inhabits that territory much more often than most Indian films I've seen. The training facilities of the Hemlock Society are my favorite part of this strangeness. There's a main hall, a mix of sterile white and almost church-like architecture except for large portraits of famous suicides (you can see Kurt Cobain on the right);
classrooms dedicated to instruction in different methods of killing yourself, each garishly saturated and filled with imagery of that technique;
Throwing yourself in front of a train cannot work in India, he says: the trains are often late and the rescue crew will reach you before the train does.
and an interrogation room filled with scribbles and letters (presumably suicide notes, from the few I could read), presided over by a priest in a chair that is half umpire, half lifeguard.
The symbolism in the visuals is heavy, but dialogue is funny and the film never seems earnest about it. Furthermore, Meghna herself is clearly disoriented by all of this and can't quite figure out what to make of it either. The "is this for real?!?" sense is amplified by the appearance of big-name Bengali actors who appear as faculty. Barun Chanda (probably best known for Ray's Seemabaddha and also familiar to current Hindi film audiences from Lootera and Roy) teaches about trains (pictured above), Sabyasachi Chakraborty explains how to effectively slit your wrists, complete with dummy arms that gush blood, and Soumitra Chatterjee plays an army colonel who demands Meghna come up with a better reason for killing herself than just a stupid boyfriend, suggesting political protest or selflessly risking her life in a patriotic act of war.
This professor debunks a method used in Bemisaal.
Even though they're not playing themselves, their presence adds gravitas to the strands of thought that swirl through Meghna's head as she struggles to figure out her honest responses to what her life has become. They do what good teachers are supposed to do: lead her to questioning what she thinks she understands and inspire her to keep digging. Dipankar Dey plays Meghna's father, a doctor, who is slow to realize the seriousness of his daughter's condition but does what he can to protect her, including giving the ex a pretty fantastic public shaming (and, more importantly, learning to listen to her). Rupa Ganguly is a calm, deep presence as Meghna's stepmom, quietly doing a better, if thankless, job at parenting a grown daughter than Meghna's biological father. 

In retrospect, Hemlock Society's principal message is unsurprising. Instead, the pleasure in the film is how it rolls out that message, combining funny but uncomfortable extremes with largely uncommented-upon pity for humanity's many shades of suffering. Despite the weirdness and Ananda's savior complex, it's a human-scale story, with ordinary people trying, failing, learning, and then trying again. It shows the ability of strangers to intervene to positive effect, the importance of reaching out to those who suffer, and the necessity of taking time to stop and think before committing life-altering acts—all handled with straightforwardness and humor. The film also provides this wonderfully hyper-self-aware Bengali-film dialogue (I think in parody, though I could also be convinced it's in earnest), for which I am eternally grateful, as Ananda tells Meghna about his ideal woman:
And I thought Hindi film heroines were unrealistic.

* I have every intention of also watching Mishawr Rawhoshyo because HELLO it seems to involve Egyptian archaeology.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kapoor and Sons

Kapoor and Sons had a far bigger and more complicated emotional impact on me than I had anticipated while I was watching it. A day later, it's the performances that linger—all of them compelling and convincing—more than the characters. The script successfully convinces me that these are compassionate, intelligent people who have been reminded that loving each other in any meaningful way involves speaking and acting with empathy, with awareness of the responsibility of holding someone else's heart in your hands. Most of the problems the Kapoors have are due to assumptions rather than hatred or malicious wronging. I may have questions about what will happen next to all of them (and I do!), but I can trust that they will be much better off moving forward than they were when we met them.

Contrast this with Dil Dhadakne Do, which has a slightly more filmi ending but also left me much less certain about how the parents were going to do in the months ahead. Kapoor and Sons feels gentler, a little crunchier, and more real, maybe because it's set at home rather than in the fantasy world of an untethered vessel along foreign shores. The Kapoors did their work at the literal heart of their family (as is maybe foretold by dadu's recovery from the heart attack that brought his grandsons home and the plumber who fixes leaks only with the help, in turn, by each of the family members), and the writers choose to show us some results of their efforts. I really appreciate that we get those glimpses at their lives a few months onward. Their progress is uneven but it is so significant.

This film is an exploration of the platinum rule that gives real respect to the differences among whatever collection of individuals who happen to make up a family. The title sort of hints at that, I think; there's a reason it's not called The Kapoors. And even though the name "and Sons" omits the two major female characters, the film really includes them very well, giving them the same sort of mix of secrecy and explosive expressiveness as the men. This is how you make a movie that treats women with the same respect as men, even when the cast is unevenly split. This is how you tell a widely relatable story without asserting that the male experience is universal. Kapoor and Sons is full of humans, not heroes. The diversity of age is also very welcome and beautifully handled.*  I love films that make the parents as interesting as the children. As much as I wanted to know more about the particulars of everyone's arc—why didn't Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) tell anyone about his secret professional passion? what is Rahul (Fawad Khan) going to give his publisher in that 20-day window he promised?—I'm most caught up in wondering why Sunita and Harsh ended up so cold and bitter to one another (the fantastic Ratna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor, inhabiting this anger expertly, spiteful and broken in one scene but so tender and hopeful the next). It's obvious, painfully so, that they did, but I want to know how it happened.

Maybe the greatest triumph of Kapoor and Sons is that it acknowledges the distress that comes from the realization most of us have to make as adults: everyone around us is carrying so much pain and fear. This is primarily expressed through Rahul; the older son seems to be the most thrown by all the revelations that so clearly demonstrate that no one, not even the golden boy, could have kept the peace with that family system operating the way it was. He also most plainly embodies the hope that consequently arises: there can be so much meaning in someone recognizing and accepting our truth, however unexpected it may be. They cannot always solve our pain, but because they know it, they can much more genuinely support and love us.

PS: I'm very much looking forward to a few months from now when essays on this film can address what I think is probably its most important aspect, at least long-term, but that is, unfortunately, a major spoiler and thus has to wait.

PPS: Alia Bhatt is really good in this too, but I couldn't figure out how to mention it in the preceding paragraphs. Hers is a well-written secondary character who is important but not exaggerated, and I think she plays it just right.

* Although why on earth it was necessary to spackle Rishi Kapoor in so much makeup when the film could have used him as-is or cast an actor closer to 80 (the stated 90 feeling fairly unrealistic, unless Dilip Kumar would come out of retirement), I do not know.


Monday, March 14, 2016


I'm on a mission to watch all of Manmohan Desai's movies before the end of this academic semester, and unless one of the remainders* turns out to be an absolute dud, Kismat is taking the prize for the worst of the 21 films he directed. It's not even the worst Hindi film of 1968 that I've seen**, but even with a ramshackle, mostly uninteresting script, it is full of missed opportunities. This is the last of only three films Desai wrote for himself, but it's a shock to see it right on the heels of Bluff Master, which I'd call basically flawless. His next film, Sachaa Jhutha, is his first with Prayag Raj, who is responsible for all but one of the rest of Desai's films (and all of my favorites)***—and those that I think of as embodying his primary values (interests?) of entertainment, inclusivity, community, family bonds, and gentle populism.

First on that list of miscalculations in this film is the casting of the lead actors: Biswajeet (Vicky), whom I find bland in almost everything, and Babita (Roma), who is consistently overshadowed by her fantastic wardrobe, just cannot hold a film. I watched Kimsat with Memsaab, and she posed that the film would have been a lot better with Dharmendra in the lead. I agree, but I also wouldn't want to waste Dharmendra on it when he could have been filming something else, because this script is dull enough that even he may have had problems injecting any style or sparkle coherently. (Not that coherence matters too much in this film.) Ditto for Memsaab's suggestion of Sharmila Tagore or Asha Parekh in place of Babita; with a character who's supposed to be barely over 16 following around a strange man through peril after peril, there's nothing particularly worth exploring, even in better hands.
I never realized I needed an apricot shantung cigarette pant suit in my wardrobe, but I do.
In the comments on Memsaab's post on Kismat, several people mention having liked this film as a kid, which helps cement my impression that it was maybe somehow aimed at children more than Desai's other works, despite jokes by the lead characters about statutory rape, premarital sex, and sharing a hotel room just a day or two after they met. The goofy, gadget-y car and its wacky inventor/owner, Jani (Kamal Mehra), who becomes Vicky's sidekick, are the major hints to this direction, but there's also a fairly consistent ignoring of the more sinister (and interesting) elements of the setup.
This bobble-head dog on the front of the car holds a handkerchief to scent the missing owner and steer the car accordingly. That's pretty great.
Roma has run away from home because her father (Babita's real-life father, Hari Shivdasani) has too many rules and she wants to see the world, but her travel bug is only mentioned one other time, and neither of those motivations explains why she decides to stick with Vicky, who has expressed no interest in traveling or in standing up to oppressive parents. The film opens quite spectacularly, with explosions, talk of enemy nations, and a villain lair with bleep-bloop equipment in its first minute, but the espionage angle too is only mentioned once again, and we don't spend as much time in the lair or with its chief resident, Scorpion, as I would like.

Biswajeet does some fighting against opponents like Shetty (both coated in mud) and a henchman with a hook hand; along with O. P. Nayyar's "One Two Three Baby" and "Kajra Mohabbat Wala", these are probably my favorite parts of the film. But despite the constant chasing, there's little sense of real menace. This might be partly due to Biswajeet's acting, because baddies like Shetty and Hiralal play their parts fully—Vicky comes off as smug and blasé rather than skilled and cool. Neither Vicky nor Roma expresses much curiosity about why bad guys keep popping up, making them seem dumb as posts. The script also lets down Vicky's credibility as some kind of major rock guitarist with actual knowledge of his instrument: he takes very shoddy care of his looks-like-cardboard-behaves-like-steel guitar, never trying to get a case for it and inconsistently remembering that it has a strap that would make it a lot easier to secure to his body when leaping from bridges. The one resource Desai uses well is Helen, who has a small but significant part as Vicky's first girlfriend, singer/dancer Nancy.

The underdevelopment and mismanagement are the most significant reason I'm so disappointed in Kismat; Manmohan Desai can usually be relied on to overdevelop things and to balance them exquisitely to delightful, fascinating effect. Kismat is one of those films that seems like it might have had some scenes cut or lost along the way: more espionage, more backstory or reflection for Roma, even more backstory for Vicky. It's also largely devoid of the kind of moral lessons Desai typically loves. Nobody in learns anything, even about fate, and only Roma has any kind of speechifying (interesting that he assigned that to the very young heroine, actually, instead of the hero or a parental figure). It's vaguely patriotic—but very unimaginatively so. Like Memsaab says in her post: despite his involvement at more than the usual level, it's like Desai never showed up for Kismat at all.

If you want to watch Kismat (you probably don't), it's available on Youtube with subtitles at the Ultra Movie Parlor channel.

* Janam Janam Ke Phere,  Budtameez, Bhai Ho To AisaShararat, and Roti.
** Do Kaliyaan, also starring Biswajeet.
*** I can't figure out who wrote Shararat. Even the film itself does not list any names. Frustrating!