late summer mini-reviews

Before the mini-reviews begin:  any film history lovers might really like reading about the fantastic exhibit Bollywood Showcards at the Royal Ontario Museum (through October 2). I interviewed the curator in my most recent "Bollywood Journal" column for the Wall Street Journal India Real Time blog. Museums + Bollywood + history + Toronto = one of the best topics Beth could ever be lucky enough to write about.

On to some films!

Dhobi Ghat
I really liked Dhobi Ghat even though it ends without the kind of unrealistic, filmi resolution that I always crave even in inappropriate settings like this one. Its slightly weary feel that stems from the un-met hopes and dreams of all the principal characters is offset by the power of creativity, communication, and connection that each of them participates in. It's actually more than participation, I think: each person is making contributions to others, whether they know it or not. They are all artists in some way, the women tending towards documentary projects while trying to reach other people and the men towards taking what was inside them and turning it outwards. The reciprocal pair of the painter and sad diarist is so touching. Her past story inspires his work, and by listening to her story all the way to the end he gives gives her a presence she seems not to have felt she had. I recently discovered the song "Mr. Lova Lova" from Ishq (and I cannot emphasize enough how immediately you should watch this if you've never seen it), and as much as I love Aamir Khan in that kind of performance, I thought he nailed the confused personality and emotions of the painter. In fact, I think everyone excelled in their roles; Kiran Rao gave them a lot to work with, having created rich and effective characters and story. 

No One Killed Jessica
This is not an entirely successful mix of truth and fiction, but oh how I loved that the film is driven by two female characters who are neither mothers nor romantic characters and make no convoluted sacrifices on the behalf of other people. These are women with missions—even better, successful ones. Oh how I recoiled at the perpetrator's horrible mother, who seemed to acknowledge nothing of the evil and loss her son had created other than that he was in danger. For once a film shows us what can happen when spoiled young men are allowed to do whatever they want with no consequences. And oh how I cheered at the trapping and shaming of the cowardly "friend" who refused to do the right thing and at the brave friend who refused to let older men shame her in public and spoke the truth.

The pacing of this film really drags it down. There is far too much time spent on the early phase of the case compared to the developments after the journalist takes it up as a cause. I don't need the total run time to be longer, but the effect is a bit deus ex NDTV for my taste. However, I'll happily forgive it since it had such strong and interesting women, especially as they contrasted with each other. When faced with tragedy and injustice, the two women responded very differently, though each with her own kind of doggedness and courage.

I watched both this and Dhobi Ghat on Netflix instant, which has only a handful of Indian films. It's an interesting selection: The Blue Umbrella, Peepli Live, Harishchandrachi Factory, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Life in a Metro, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Thank You, Life Partner, My Name Is Khan.... I've often wondered how they decide what films to make available this way—the variety in style and talent is nice, though I wish they had more things from different eras and languages—and how long to make them available.

I doubt that I would have enjoyed Wanted as much if I hadn't already seen Pokiri and Dabangg, and I really don't have anything to say about it that isn't already in my writeups of those other films. Violent, semi-sarcastic, southie-inspired Salman works better for me than other versions of him, for whatever reason. And I don't care how much he hams his death scenes: I'll take whatever Vinod Khanna I can get.

This is my favorite film so far in MAHESHMATIZATION 2011, I think simply because it does not have as exaggerated a role and story as the rest of what I've seen him do. He's still a baby-faced killer, but it didn't feel like the same scale, and he even has a full life outside all the killing. I also appreciate Bhumika's heroine getting in a few good points about women's free will against Prakash Raj's psychopathic villain. The dreamy shots and sets of the Charminar are a lovely treat,

and who doesn't want to see giant puppets (try 3:11) or a fleet of tough guys dancing against happy backdrops of communal diversity? The visual effects of Prakash Raj's fu, let's call it, are not to be missed.

The next three films fall into the loose category of "sort of scary," and for all the zombies, hands rising from graves, knives, and blood of Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche and Red Rose, Madhumati is by far the most creepy. Through no fault of its own, the effect of its finale is a bit diminished by me having already seen Om Shanti Om, but overall its stormy nights, animal noises, and weird paintings give me more chills than either the surprisingly boring 1972 offering by the Ramsay Brothers (one of their earliest) or the misogynist "psychological thriller" featuring Rajesh Khanna doing some serious ACT!ING! in a role that screams FREAK from the get-go and Poonam Dhillon's character making some seriously "stupid, stupid woman in a horror film"-style bad decisions.
Women who eat apples are eeevil? Someone remembers his Sunday school lessons.

Hmm. On second thought, a cat who drinks blood and Rajesh Khanna showing all that chest hair are really scary. I will say for Red Rose that at least the set and costume departments (wait til you see what the killer wears when he's out for blood—the stuff of nightmares!) probably had some fun creating the off-kilter, clue-laden environment the killer inhabits, right down to a wind-up toy lion and literal skeletons in a closet. More ink has been spilled discussing this film on Memsaab's post than I would ever have imagined possible, so if you want to read more, I suggest heading over there. (And in case you can't tell, I agree with her.)

Ayee Milan Ki Bela

This 1964 film about a good person (Rajendra Kumar as Shyam) who loves a kind of bratty person (Saira Banu as Barkha) and is thwarted by two villains of varying badness is notable for two reasons. First: from what I have read, it is the only film in which Dharmendra has played a villain (Ranjeet) (depending on whether you count his brief appearance in Johnny Gaddar), and indeed he has turned quite bad by the end of the film, though in a petulant spoiled baby way rather than as a traitor/rapist/serial killer, and the person he seeks to harm has himself gone off the deep end. And he looks mighty fine doing it.
Second: the animals! Set in a rural community, there are some great farm animals (mostly these lovely speckled cows), horses, a tiger attack, a person in a leopard outfit, and Shyam's dog Raja, a true anipal.
He may not be a wonder dog, but he's pretty endearing. 

He's generally helpful, bringing his master bags and radios, but much to my surprise he basically takes the place of the heroine in the film's first song, "Main Pyaar Ka Deewana." As Shyam romps through the Kashmiri countryside, Raja is right there with him in the fields of flowers, along the crystal-clear stream, and down the winding paths. And for those of you who share my sensitivity to how animals seem to be treated in films, do not worry: nothing bad happens to Raja. (I'm not sure I can say the same for the black cat in Red Rose, whom I desperately hope was a non-living stunt double in a particular scene.)

After watching this film, I still don't get the massive appeal of Rajendra Kumar. He's certainly inoffensive and serviceable, but I don't see any qualities that would have supported his massive box office draw. His character here does not lend itself to a stellar performance: Shyam is mostly a nice guy who makes good choices and leads his community well, but he's also not going to be pushed around and instead goes a little bit bonkers in self-defense when he is falsely accused of various crimes by evil Madan Puri, who has a major bone to pick. Rajendra's swing from pleasant and smiley to shouting with rage felt very uneven, like he was in fact two different people rather than a good man pushed too far.

The success of this film at the Filmfare awards for 1964 is also puzzling, with Rajendra, Dharmendra, and Shashikala all being nominated for best acting awards, even though Shashikala generally turns in this sort of performance:
A very special "Nahiiiin!"

I will also give Rajendra Kumar points for dancing spiritedly in the one song that calls for him to do so. The title track is, at least visually, a glorious celebration of modern agriculture, which is a major piece of the setting of this film that the characters don't particularly remark on. I was expecting the community's shift from traditional farming methods to mechanized ones to lead to at least one flood/ fire/gory injury in a combine, but no, everything is hunky-dory, the sun is shining, the fields are yielding, and people get wealthier. Huh.
You know how I love hand-drawn title sequences!
In the song, performed at a harvest festival, Saira and Rajendra dance with dozens of backup dancers on a stage decorated with imagery that seems straight out of Mother India: fields, a tractor, and a statue of a man holding a sickle looking confidently towards the horizon. Is this film commenting on the Green Revolution (or the groundwork for it)?

Anyway. It's a pleasant timepass, if a bit uneven in tone and performances, but I can't say anything particularly compelling about it. It had been sitting next to my tv in its Netflix envelope since March (I think I ordered it for Deol Dhamaka), and I'm not sorry that I let it wait so long or that it will soon be going back whence it came. Even if that does mean this might be the last time I see anyone in a Jackson Pollack-inspired sari, which 1) I desperately want and 2) is probably the best thing about Saira Banu in this film.
Let's end with something more solidly fun. How about Raja doing another trick?

"WHEEEEEEE!" says Raja! I could watch this all day.


Leena said…
totally agree about dhobi ghat - i thought it was beautifully made and poignantly drew out the power of multimedia storytelling in connecting with a place, plus HOW hot is prateik babbar?

i liked the strength and ambition of the women in nokj, but overall i didn't find the movie to be that compelling. although not as well-produced, and although koel puri is horrible, the lesser-known "it's breaking news!" told a similar tale through what i think was probably a better script.

couldn't stand to see more than 5 mins of wanted, and haven't seen the others.
Anonymous said…
I enjoyed NOKJ as much as you did

Wanted was better than Dabangg, Ready and Bodyguard... but its difficult to endure Salman in these kinda mindless roles now...

dont agree with your views on dhobi ghat... was tough to sit through the film... havent seen the other films you mentioned.

Todd said…
It's like a "Nahiiiin!" with jazz hands.
Anarchivist said…
I am shocked that you didn't like Red Rose. Shocked!
Anonymous said…
Wow, that dog Raja certainly does fill the bill for the heroine in that number...adorable...poppy fields and all. Needs a blowing dupatta off the collar and it would be perfect!

You may have convinced me to give Okkadu a try, even though Mahesh Babu gives me a real Shia LaBeauf vibe which is a bit off-putting. Transformers: The Musical? And did you have a problem getting a Telugu film with subtitles? I've never tried.

I'd never seen Mr. Luva Luva, or perhaps I'd just blocked it out with the rest of Ishq, which for my taste was way too frenetic even with the fabulous cast and that crazy long kiss to balance it out. But the number itself is very fun, and makes me nostalgic for Johnny Lever. Really. Where's he been lately, do you know?

Jenny K
Anonymous said…
Excellent gifs, so excellent!!!! You have been a very busy girl, movie-watching-wise :)
Mette said…
Dhobi Ghat is the best film of 2011 until now, in my opinion. It's even one of the best Indian films I've seen lately, and I hope Kiran Rao will go on making films.
Most people didn't like Aamir in it that much, but I think he nailed it. And Prateik... oh Prateik <3.

NOKJ was also extremely good, the others I haven't seen.
Jawahara said…
I haven't been to your blog for ages and I've missed it. I liked Dhobi Ghat but felt sad at the end, which is not altogether a bad thing. NOKJ, that's a knottier one since it is drawn directly from the actual case and that is pretty much what happened.

But what bothered me about NOKJ is also what bothered me about Rang De Basanti. It's too long to go into here. Maybe I'll blog about it.
Leena - Yes! So beautiful (both the film and Prateik)! I've never heard of Breaking News so will hunt it down!

Mansi - I haven't seen Bodyguard, nor will I, since it didn't come to town and seeing it in the cinema would have been the only draw for me, but I did genuinely like Dabangg very much.


Jenny - Isn't he the best heroine animpal ever? I haven't seen enough of Shia recently to have an opinion on that, but Mahesh is definitely my favorite of the Telugu heroes I've seen so far (a tiny sample, so this statement is basically worthless). As for subtitles: voila! The person to ask about Telugu films with subs is Temple of the blog Cinema Chaat; I've found quite a few in my local Indian grocery store to rent and the DVD shops in Chicago.

Glad you share my love of Mr Lova Lova! I think that's the best use of Johnny Lever I've ever seen. No idea what he's up to. I seem to remember him having a tv show 5 years ago or so...? As long as he is not on my screen, I'm happy.

memsaab - YAY! :D

Mette - Agree - Kiran should do more more more.

Jawahara - Awww thanks! Yes, Dhobi Ghat's sadness was completely appropriate and I think a different tone would not have worked nearly as well. I hope you do talk about your problems with NOKJ. I know only the basic sketch of the real life events and there are some things that bugged me in the film that I thought might also be real, or real-ish, at least.
beth I love your Gifs from the Ayee Milan ki Bela movie, pls how did you do it, i'd love to incorporate it to my blog posts
Thanks! I used Photoshop since I have it, but there are several websites where you can upload your stills and they'll animate them.

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