Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

"It's one of those Karan Johan films where I leave feeling sorry for Karan Johar," said a friend on twitter (whose account is private, so I can't link you to it). If My Name Is Khan was an angst-gasm over cultural identity and Student of the Year over sexuality, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is one over un-mirrored love. I don't know if I'm supposed to be moved by Ayan's (Ranbir Kapoor, who is very good, as he should be, given his experience with the aspects of this role) years of pining for Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) or just sort of intellectually appreciate his devotion, but it's exhausting. There's some empathy in that exhaustion (we've all been there, no?) but it's a tricky subject to do much with because it is fundamentally kind of boring and unchanging. It's also hard to share—as a cameo character says later in the film, it's a selfish kind of thing that only the lover him/herself can participate in—and thus maybe the kind of subject better left to a mini-series, when you can have a break in between episodes of suffering.

What gets lost in the ├╝ber-gloss of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is an important, maybe Imtiaz-Ali-ish response from the unrequited love's object: this is the love that I have for you, and you cannot change it. Alizeh repeatedly tells Ayan "I do love you! Just not the way you want me to." Saba (Aishwarya Rai) has a line like this as well to her ex-husband: when he says she gave up on their love, she responds with something like "And you're not even trying my friendship." You might think your object is not being fully honest with themselves (this is what eventually happens with Saba, after all), and you might hope that their emotions change over time, but what you are offered is all that there is. You don't have to take it, but you can't change it.

I actually don't know quite what to make of how the film ends, but it's possible to read Ayan and Alizeh's final interactions as him having learned to accept what she is able to give and be happy with it while also being honest to his own feelings and character. They both have had tantrums, he says, but they both are able to pull themselves together and be better than that.

Related, there's a quiet point about the human tendency not to change our basic natures. When the character of Ali is first mentioned, he's described as having behaved in certain ways with certain effects, and so he continues through the rest of the film. The only change comes in Alizeh's reactions to him. This feels to me like a very personal statement from KJo, whether he's speaking professionally or personally. You can't change other people; you can only control your own responses. If you're unhappy with someone, your freedom will probably only come in trying to change what you do in response.

While I was watching the film, I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me about Alizeh. Here and there, Anushka seems a little over-done, maybe too studied, but not enough to ruin anything. And anyway Alizeh is a somewhat closed-off person, so her temperamentalness and snits could reasonably result from sudden panics of her inner fortress being breached. Alizeh is dangerously close to MPDG at times, but she gets enough independent personality and arc that in the end that label would be unfair. Then I read this excellent piece by Piyasree Dasgupta and I realized: she's mean, and she is written so that she is established as "good," empathetic, and desirable in comparison to another woman who is "bad." She publicly shits on Lisa for being a gold-digger while knowing absolutely nothing about her. As Dasgupta says, "But Ayan and Alizeh's friendship doesn't ebb. You know why? Real bros bond over objectifying, sexualising, and then saying nasty things about women." Alizeh continues to benefit from Ayan's money in exactly the way Lisa was demonized for doing. This is a very regressive way to write women. She eventually invites him to her wedding even though she knows—or would know, if she would stop to consider the feelings of the person she calls her best-est-est-est friend—for days of public pain because apparently she has no other friends who will come from "her side." Life lesson: be wary of adults who have no other friends.

I have long considered myself an Aishwarya apologist, but what she does in this film is modeling, not acting, and I have to put that on KJo because I know she's capable of more. We saw more of that ring she constantly contorts to display than we did of Saba's personality. I like the idea of a super-confident "older" woman setting terms of a friendly, sexual affair, and I think it makes good sense in this story, but there's no actual desire from her. (One exception, and it's fleeting but telling: in "Bulleya," as they walk away from each other, she looks back twice and he does not at all.) Ranbir does well at being agog in her presence, and we can understand that a devastated person may throw themselves into any interaction in which they are invited just to feel some kind of human connection. But she's so plastic, down to the too-regularly spaced fake eyelashes.

Something I never thought I'd do is issue Karan Johar a yellow card for mis-use of exceptionally charismatic and handsome men. Only two films old, we can hardly say that Fawad Khan has a type in Hindi films already, but "tattooed asshole DJ" just feels off. Maybe if he'd had more dialogues and interactions? I think the character of Ali is written well and used effectively—I don't want any more of Ali for story-related reasons (to gaze upon Fawad, sure)— but he should have been played by someone else who could more instantly express "super magnetic bad boy." Ranveer, maybe (like in Finding Fanny)? KJo's world does in fact have more than facades in it, so "really hot" isn't enough to actually drive emotions or decisions, as is demonstrated effectively in the beginning of the film with Lisa Haydon's and Imran Abbas's characters.

KJo also failed to direct SRK in his cameo, so much so that the superstar seems to have been transplanted from an entirely different project. The "nobility and strength of unrequited love" dialogue he is given is exceptionally facile, in a weird contrast to the lugubrious lines of Saba the poet and the much more normal-sounding speech of the younger, less guileful Ayan. If that dialogue was necessary, SRK, echoing back to his Darr stalking days, was the perfect person to embody it, but the lines and the performance of them feel so shoehorned here. The awkwardness of the situation makes sense, but the lecture does not.

But how interesting is it that KJo's famous romantic lead is now the oldest character in the film to have any spoken lines and has become the patriarch! Here he seems almost as antiquated as Amitabh in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham—my god, that's a terrible fate.

The one thing the leads of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil love without complications, and which loves them in return, is Hindi cinema past and present. I have a fairly high threshold for in-jokes like this, and in fact watching Ranbir romp on a hillside in two sweaters like a deranged meta-Kapoor and Anushka give voice to what every chiffon-clad-in-Switzerland heroine has surely thought, is very satisfying. But it goes a little too far. In his review for Mint, Uday Bhatia says "[KJo's celebration of his own career] is beyond just self-referential—it’s self-reverential. Maybe that’s the answer to the film’s dilemma: when the object of your affection doesn’t reciprocate, you simply learn to love yourself." And isn't that basically the advice everyone gives you when you've been rejected romantically? "No one else will love you until you learn to love yourself." Of course, plenty of people, audience and industry alike, love KJo, or at least claim to, and he enjoys a unique position of power and influence, so why he felt he needed to make such an endless movie about this topic, I do not know.

End result? Ae dil hai meh.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

catching up on 2016 Bollywood

Ki & Ka
If you forget about the Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan part—which you immediately should, because it is bloated and self-congratulatory—this is not a bad little exploration of gender- and relationship-based expectations. The story is more often from his perspective or from within sympathies towards him, I think, but no women are particularly demonized (though the bit about Kia's jealousy over Kabir's housework-based fame could be handled better, IMO), and in fact Kia's career ambitions are supported by other women and rewarded in terms that she likes, which feels HUGE for a mainstream film. It's still vaguely maddening that socio-economically privileged men are fawned over for doing basic household work and for being friends with stay-at-home wives/moms, but it also seems quite likely that that's what would happen if these characters were real people. I like that these characters are the way they are because they've thought about issues and their own personalities and likes, not solely because of trauma or rebellion. I also like that the film is clear that self-knowledge and self-confidence are not always enough to sustain you through social critique when you're in a non-traditional relationship or scenario. We all want to think that what other people say doesn't matter, but that's very hard to adhere to all the time.

Arjun Kapoor, though. He's so dull.

Phobia (did not finish watching)
This is perhaps not a movie for viewing on a plane: the screen is too small for the visuals to be appreciated or for the fear to grip sufficiently, and the cuts (at least on Etihad Airlines) probably left out some of the drama and scares. I am not a horror, or even scary, movie fan, so I'm not sure why I even tried this, but I was soon bored. The film throws a lot at you, but nothing stuck for me. Perhaps in another setting, Radhika Apte's impressive performance—which based on what I saw is as much a solo turn as Shahrukh's in Fan—would have been enough to engage me through the whole film, but it wasn't while I was jet-lagged and over-eager for the plane to land.

Side note: Radhika Apte is suddenly everywhere I turn—an absolutely fine place for her to be, I hasten to add. It's like when you learn a new word and suddenly notice it in everything you read even though you'd swear you'd never seen it before. In the last few months, I've seen her in Kabali, last year's tv adaptation of Chokher Bali (which I like far more than the Aishwarya-Prosenjit version), Anurag Kashyap's short That Day after Everyday (2013), and Parched (see below).

M. S. Dhoni
I knew this movie would be out while I was in India but I had no plans to see it because 3-HOUR CRICKET MOVIE WITHOUT SUBTITLES.
This is what cricket scoring and strategy sound like to me.
But I actually love it. Does it help that, thanks to a friend of a friend, I got to see it at a special screening hosted by Sushant Singh Rajput and meet him and tell him how brilliant I think Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is? Obviously.

Some people told me that knowing nothing of cricket or Dhoni might be the ideal frame of mind for this film because I would have very little sense of how hagiographical it is, of what is conveniently omitted—what was still untold, despite the film's tag line. That's mostly true; even in my ignorance I'm pretty sure the film isn't showing us much of the hard mental work of captain-ing, of strategizing and making decisions in very high-stakes situations. I also agree with the general murmuring that there is no compelling reason to make this film in 2016, when the subject is not only still alive but currently active in the line of work that made him famous.

That said, I delight in biographies that show that greatness is also found in people who are decent human beings with no demons, no quest for redemption, and nothing in particular to prove other than that they are good at X endeavor. I love to see a genius who is otherwise ordinary. I don't know if Dhoni is as sane or nice a guy in real life as he is in the film,* but it's pleasing to get the unspoken message that you will benefit in life by working hard and being good to your friends and those who help you. I get that "decent people who try hard" doesn't always make an exciting narrative, especially without a villain, as this film is, but I'm glad someone tried. To me, and with the background I have (and don't have), SSR made an actual character rather than any caricature, not just with his face** and voice but with his whole body, and it's a character I find easy to care about and root for.

* I am aware Dhoni is a friend and partner of one of the producers.

** what a face
but the wiiiiigs
but back to the face

This film is WAY better than I thought it would be. I had expected a horrible slog through important social issues leading to either absolute nihilism or misandry, but instead Parched is complicated and filmi enough to feel more like a story than a lecture. The visuals are beautiful—often used in what I assume is deliberate contrast to the very ugly attitudes—the acting is flawless, and the characters are complex. Best of all, the film makes clear the importance of women helping themselves and each other and breaking or redefining the traditions that harm them.

The men in this world cannot be relied on for any good, and some of them are not even predictable in their horribleness, their abuse taking new shapes as women claim power and argue back. The women's artistry (handicrafts, dance), seen both in the set design and as plot points, echoes each individual's powers as creators and deciders. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here with definitions and use of space as well; sometimes the public space (a bus, a roadway, a historic site) is the most liberating (and liberated), but at other times the private is (a cave at night, an empty house). What seem to be the most dangerous spaces are the village or multi-family interactions where people know you enough to judge you and have power over you but aren't close enough to actually love or know you: marriage negotiations, the panchayat meeting, your courtyard.
For those of you who have seen it, did you love how Shahrukh Khan is invoked? I want to write an essay on how he gets used as a symbol in films that he is not otherwise a part of; this one is the most interesting example that I can think of, tied to not only sexuality and desire (as opposed to just material aspiration) but also new technology and freedom. He's the only star who could have worked this way, both modern but irreproachably mature and masculine.

Dishoom is a dumb movie, but that's exactly what I was in the mood for when I watched it, so I ended up liking it quite a bit.
India's Minister for External Affairs opens an email from "Anonymous" with the subject line "CONFIDENTIAL." India has much bigger problems than a missing cricketer if top politicians are dumb enough to click on attachments from unknown senders.
Varun Dhawan is well cast as the junior and comedic partner in a buddy cop project; John Abraham...everyone in this film has more charisma and screen presence than he does, and I include both the dog and Nargis Fakhri in that assessment.
What Dishoom does best is keep the plot moving along fairly quickly so that you are soon distracted from one dumb thing by another (and fortunately most of them are good-natured, with at least one glaring exception about to be named): Akshay Kumar doing his best with an ignorant gay stereotype cameo! 
random patriotism from the kidnapped cricketer! Jacqueline Fernandez's thighs! Parineeti Chopra's waist! Rahul Dev's piercing gaze! vehicle chases inside some giant mall or something! John smoking again because he's such a badass! the writers actually acknowledging that someone could be recognized by his voice! motorcycles with side cars! land mines! 

And then this happens and the world stops and I am so happy.  
I would watch anything to see that crooked smile again. I don't know where Akshaye Khanna has been for the last few years, but THANK HELEN ABOVE HE IS BACK and apparently with his talent in place. If you have missed Akshaye Khanna like I have, this movie is definitely worth watching (but you can skip the first 45 minutes or so). That's the only real reason I can give you to watch this.