mini-review marathon: the new-ish Hindi films, part 2

If  you asked after the first half hour of Shanghai whether I thought it lived up to the very high bar Dibarkar Banerjee has set for himself with his previous three films, I'd most likely have said no. But now that I've seen the entire film, I am as impressed with his body of work as ever. I say that even though Shanghai is not as much "Beth's typically preferred kind of movie" as his previous films, which I find much less consistently dark and depressing—though the horrible moments of Love Sex aur Dhokha are among the most despairing I've seen in Indian cinema—and I missed Dibakar's loose and silly side. Of course, that would have been wildly out of place in this story, save a few flashes of tension- or desperation-derived absurdity scattered throughout the muck and shadows.

I'm having trouble separating out the threads of Shanghai into an organized discussion. They are so brilliantly composed and interrelated, both in the story and in the portrayal of it, especially over the span of the whole film, that talking about any aspect of the film immediately brings ten others on its heels. Get Filmy's review evokes all of this really well. Her post's title, "Slow Burn," perfectly describes why what may seem like delayed gratification as you watch the film is in fact very smart pacing and unfolding of layers—and, in my opinion, mirrors the increasing determination and urgency of the characters to make their way through the mystery. The star of Shanghai is everyone who was involved in it.

Oh wait, though,  I must say this one thing: did Farooq Shaikh act the sh*t out of his role or what? For most of the film he uses his trademark quiet smileyness to just barely skim-coat his ruthlessness. If you didn't know what he was saying and just watched him, you'd think he was everyone's favorite uncle, the weakling, the clown you don't put any value on (indicated by filmidom's favorite shorthand of constantly eating, like the police chief in Dabangg 2). But then comes the fateful turn where someone gets leverage over him and he slowly, silently crumbles. Amazing. If you are a fan of Farooq, do keep an eye out for his new film with Deepti Naval, Listen Amaya, releasing February 1. (I saw it at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival in September and wrote about it here.)

For more of my thoughts on Banerjee's other films, try this piece I wrote about him for the Wall Street Journal

English Vinglish
This is another film I wanted to like, but a bunch of grating stereotypes and some unsurmounted cultural differences get in the way. Sridevi's performance as the flowering Shashi is flawless, and her character is thoughtfully written, but I want better for Shashi than a life in which she allows her horrendously selfish children and husband to treat her badly. Those kids are a walking billboard for what happens when you don't actually take on the hard parts of parenting, like saying no and trying to correct thoughtless behavior, and her husband is an entitled ass who clearly wants a maid rather than a partner.

As I watched this, I kept wondering if I was seeing a new version of the bharatiya nari emerge,* one who is involved in the contemporary (and admittedly urban and well-off) world enough to want to learn English to keep up a bit with her husband's and children's outside lives, but one who also fears that learning English (and by extension, focusing on her own mind and aptitudes) makes her selfish and whose stated desire for some respect is satiated by people merely not treating her like dirt for a few days. (This is all relative, of course; these characters have plenty of resources and no one is physically or emotionally abused.)

Like many of you, I cried several times throughout the film, mostly out of grief for how afraid Shashi is of experiences beyond her tightly defined comfort zone and for how small her wishes are yet how hard they are to fulfill. I also cried in frustration at how difficult it is to respect this character's choices and beliefs about herself. Her determination, her achievement, her commitment to English class and all it represents for her had me cheering out loud but her...her...I don't know what to call it, her seemingly willful ignoring of her children's bad behavior and her husband's disrespect of her as a human being make me crazy. Maybe English class is simply that and not particularly a marker of a changed role in her family? Maybe it is a sign of ability and not necessarily an indicator of will or prioritization? I also wonder if Shashi will still make fun of her servant's mispronunciation of English once she's home, now that she's experienced even more versions of disrespect herself?

A note on that. The stereotypes of some of the minor characters and incidents in New York reeeeeally bug me. The café scene, while very effective at creating pain and evoking sympathy for Shashi, rings very false. The film shows other patrons complaining about the rude clerk, yet no one—no one in that room of at least 20 people—helps Shashi with her order or sasses back at the barista? It's such an important scene in establishing the plot that follows it that more care really ought to have been taken with it. And the gay ESL teacher? Yes, basic human decency was eventually shown to him, and we're all one small-world rainbow, let's congratulate ourselves, but why write him that way when the other gay character is...yeah, well, on that, he's an almost-silent black man. That whole ESL classroom is full of cheap-joke stereotypes; I wonder why, when other people in the film, like Shashi and her niece Radha, are written so nicely? Not as bad as Mama Jenny, but still. I expected better.

Anyway. For what it did well, like showing life's small but significant victories and the quiet pain of the people we take for granted, English Vinglish is very nice. But I cannot help wishing it had done more and done better, even if it would never dream of having Shashi make the radical decisions that I want her to make. Worse yet, since the film ends with her second-guessing her choice of reading an English (instead of Hindi) newspaper, I am not sure that Shashi actually got, or will continue to demand, the respect she says she wants. Does the film want its take-away to be "Know your limits"?

For your Bollywood trivia today, enjoy seeing Sridevi walk past a poster for a 1950s film called Mogambo.

Ek Tha Tiger
Soft-hearted Tiger should probably be nicknamed Puppy instead, so keen is he for his next assignment and so loyal to his favorite plaything (Katrina Kaif), even when she bops him on the nose with the newspaper and doesn't let him into the house when he's scratching at the door. To his credit, Salman Khan integrates the ass-kicking agent thing pretty well with the gentler, more boyish aspects of Tiger, creating a character who feels like a real, if still cinematic, person, rather than a hero with his fingers in too many different masala elements all in one film. And in that regard, I can see why some people discussed this film as a bit of a throwback to older masala, with the hero as a patriot, a defender, and a romantic—though an unconventional one in that he cannot fulfill all of these things at the same time, forced as he is to sacrifice either love or duty. This same dilemma is nicely mirrored at a smaller level by his sidekick (performed quite well by Ranvir Shorey, who, after bringing very welcome comedy to Heroine, I now want to see in a little role in everything), who has to chose between the motherland and friendship (maybe even hero-worship, depending on how you read some of their interactions).

HOWEVER. While Katrina Kaif's role was written to include more action, more "doing stuff," than things like Kareena's roles in other flavors of testosterone (ew, sorry) like Ra.One or Agent Vinod, and I applaud that, I have come to loathe her as a performer. I live in fear of Jab Tak Hai Jaan: La Kaif as the center of an epic love story? No. Just no. Whatever she's done to her face—it's a toddler/goldfish impression, IMO—severely interferes with the expressions that may have been in her wheelhouse (wheel cupboard?), and her voice just sounds dead. Her performances routinely strike me as empty, but maybe  that's why people like her. Is she Bollywood's real-life Bella Swan, blank enough to project whatever you want on to her? My other theory is that being sexually attracted to women is a necessary, though definitely not sufficient, condition to have substantial praise for her, especially when one remembers that pretty ≠ acting (or even star). Test it out for yourself and let me know whether it holds in your social circle. Of course, if you read Vogue India's fifth anniversary issue a few months ago, you already know that most of her screen appearances are actually robot replicas, which explains everything.

Ek Tha Tiger does well enough what it chooses to do. If I had seen this before Dabangg 2, you bet your bippy the latter would have suffered by comparison, even though they're not particularly similar films apart from being Salman Khan vehicles. But, like English Vinglish, I wish Ek Tha Tiger had chosen to do more. Is it Roger Ebert who talks about how unfair it is to judge a movie on what you want it to do instead of on what it wants and tries to do? Whoever says that, I agree, but I also find myself unable to work up enough investment in this particular film to rise to a more philosophically sound approach to discussing it. That said, my bar for Ek Tha Tiger was very low—I somehow thought it would be much louder and dumber than it was—so I was surprised and pleased by what it had to offer. A solid timepass that I am happy to have seen but am happy not to own on DVD.
Not as cute as the sloth, but it'd still make a good photobomb.

* On the Masala Zindabad podcast, we did a four-part series on Bollywood's take on the bharatiya nari and iconic female characters over the decades. The posts, which include mp3 files of the episodes, are here


Ellie said…
La Kaif, in my opinion, ruined... wait, that's not quite fair. I was going to say "ruined Jab Tak Hai Jaan" but, as much as I wanted to love that movie, it was so bad on so many levels that I can't blame it all on her, though I really want to. When you see it, be warned that Yash Raj has a thing for zooming in on Kaif's gently parted lips and top front teeth, so get ready for that.

As for whether or not being attracted to women is a must, I can't speak to that but I will give you the only data point that I have available: my husband can't stand her. On the other hand, all of the other men in our packed theater lost their freaking minds when she came on screen-- even more than they did when Anushka bared her midriff. So... I don't know.
Teeth: so hot right now.

I have to admit I am pleased that S hates Katrina. That may make me small and petty but WHATEVER, no smaller than fawning over her just because she's a Barbie doll.
veracious said…
As I understood it, the point of learning English for Shashi was not solely to gain respect of her family, but also to gain confidence. I believe that's the main take-away message of the film - to have confidence, to believe in yourself and your abilities, and not to undermine yourself even when others do so. A part of the reason that the cruel jokes made by her thoughtless daughter and her husband hurt so much was because she didn't have that great a self-esteem.
Turkish Bacon said…
Katrina has NEVER made sense to me! She's awful and IMHO not half as pretty as countless other Bollywood actresses. What she does have is white skin, the right Khan in her corner and, it seems, brains (how else has she kept herself in position). I'm hugely annoyed every time i hear she gets 1st crack at everything when Anushka, Kangana or ANYONE else could be just as vacant as KK is ( I'm indifferent to Kangana but I've liked Anushka in everything I've seen her in).

By the way, wheel cupboard is too generous!
me said…
I agree with some of your comments about English Vinglish, but I didn't see her choice to read a Hindi newspaper at the end as second guessing, more a statement of her chosen identity. I can read English, I choose to read Hindi. I found it refreshing, and wish that more would make a similar stand against the linguistic hegemony of English
Veracious (love your picture, by the way) - Yeah, I can see that. I wonder whether increased confidence will stay when she is back in her regular life in India and if it does, whether her family will notice it or it will affect their attitudes about her. The little boy says something to the sister to the effet of "she's on to you" and I would LOVE to see how that plays out. :)

Stuart - Yes, that's definitely a possible reading, and I hope that your reading is what the script intended. I felt there was so much hesitation in her voice as her husband watched over her choice that there was a sense of being restrained in there.
Maria said…
One movie that I loved the most from the list is English Vinglish. The concept of the movie was quite amazing. It was nice come back of Shri Devi with this meaningful movie.
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