FIASCO!: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 11, 2013

Last week's Pop Culture Happy Hour features a discussion kicked off by one of host Linda Holmes's—and my—favorite episodes of This American Life: "Fiasco!" Listen to the TAL episode here and read about and listen to the PCHH episode here.

Definitions of a fiasco, as opposed to a more simple disaster or a more drawn-out series of less-than-ideal decisions, are hard to pin down. To me, it's almost a "I know it when I see it" sort of thing. Descriptors of a fiasco that these two podcasts discuss include:
• "When fumble leads to error leads to mishap, and before you know it you have left the realm of ordinary mistake and chaos and you have moved into the more ethereal, specialized realm of fiasco." "It's an altered state...the normal rules are off." (TAL)
• "Ambition exceeds competency or reality." (PCHH)
• And because I was curious about its etymology, I looked it up in the OED: it's from the Italian phrase "to make a bottle" but scholars are not clear why that phrase is applied to "a failure or breakdown in a dramatic or musical performance.... An ignominious failure."

The gist is similar. There is something spectacular about a fiasco, probably because it is the dark side of the brink of greatness. And on that point, it seems to me that a fiasco can be subjective: what to me is a disaster of epic proportions might for you be a successfully groundbreaking experiment—or at least a noble attempt that has merit for, and thus draws achievement from, its efforts. It is a dynamic system that takes some time to unravel but also exists within a particular, defined duration (which might only be discernible in hindsight—I'm thinking of a political administration, for example). Decisions interact with and compound on each other in fascinating and unexpected and always worsening ways. There is probably some unintended drama and certainly some accidents. The empathy, forgiveness, and/or decorum of the audience/bystanders/subject/victims gives way and they may actively turn against the principal participants.

Moving to our particular context of Hindi films, I tentatively posit that a filmi fiasco involves two basic phenomena, which are basically elaborate ways of saying "failure" and "scale":
1) The film wildly or catastrophically fails to meet its own goals, whether these are known because filmmakers or cast have stated them publicly or inferred by the audience through experience with similar films, other works by people involved, whatever was emphasized by promotional materials, etc. Audiences have every right to make these inferences—not being able to control how people understand and judge their work is one of the prices paid when a creator releases their work into the world—but of course they might not be what the creator intends or want. A goal can be as straightforward as the beloved concept "timepass" or as deceptively simple as "tell the story of ____."
2) The film violates the generally accepted concept of what a movie is without a good reason. That last part is critical to the definition because it helps distinguish between experiment and ambition on one hand and laziness and incompetence on the other. Failing to be a complete, coherent work might be a very purposeful statement by a filmmaker who is experimenting with conventions, and to me if that's done in service of making a bigger point about film history, culture, audience expectations, narrative, whatever, that's fine. Similarly, a tiny budget that cannot support the filmmakers' ambitions is not an automatic condemnation to fiasco. No one should be criticized for having dreams bigger than their pockets, though perhaps this situation leads more often to "A for effort" than impressive results.

Note that "box office" in isolation is not entering into it. Not all flops are fiascos.

A few films popped into my head as I was listening to the podcast. First on my list is Kamal R. Khan's Deshdrohi, which is a very easy choice and comes to mind whenever I think of spectacular failures and deluded filmmakers, which I do more frequently than you might guess.
If you haven't seen it, Deshdrohi is my vote for Bollywood's The Room; if you haven't seen The Room and there's no midnight screening near you right away, you can find it in the usual places. Deshdrohi is a perfect example of PCHH's definition of a fiasco: ego and ambition exceeding competency and reality. However, it's often boring, too, and I'm not sure a fiasco can be boring.

I also nominate Harinam Singh's Shaitani Dracula. I am fascinated by this film, and no doubt I have whined at some of you sufficiently over the last four years that you've broken down and watched it—a true testament of your affection and/or morbid curiosity.

As esteemed MOSS colleague Keith says at Teleport City, says:
Rarely, however, have I encountered a film that so closely resembles the scrawling on a padded cell wall done by a paranoid delusional. In no frame of mind and in no sense comprehensible by sane humans can you even call Shaitani Dracula a film. That it ever saw the light of day is testament to the fact that strange and inexplicable things still happen in this modern world. Even judged against the standards of cut-rate Indian horror cinema from outside the Bollywood mainstream—a genre that has never valued competence or coherence in its headlong rush toward another scene of a pizza-faced ghoul or a woman taking a shower while wearing cycling shorts and a bra—Shaitani Dracula stands out as something wholly more advanced than anything else yet witnessed. To watch it is an experience not unlike the final bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq alternates between screaming in abject terror and rapturously yelling “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes.
MOSS agents Ninja Dixon (" extremely incompetent it actually feels unreal"), Tars Tarkas ("This is one of the most ridiculous films I have ever seen"), and Die Danger Die Die Kill ("I have been forever altered by the experience...I have been far too profligate in my use of the word 'incoherent'") have also written about it. In fact, much of MOSS got together earlier this year for a tweetalong, and so mighty was our ink-spilling that we got "#ShaitaniDracula" to trend.

Like Deshdrohi and The RoomShaitani Dracula is primarily the child of one...artist. It's a peril of a one-person show: there's no one else as invested as you are who will protect their own interests/sanity by making you rein things in or helping refine your vision with their critical thought. But I'm not sure that it fits my definition of a fiasco because I have no (un)earthly clue what the goals of this project are and thus cannot say with certainty that the film doesn't meet them. In fact, I am fairly confident one of the goals for the director is to wear fake teeth and grope young women, and he does these things frequently, so...success? And far from turning against Harinam Singh because of this film, I have sought out several of his other movies and would gladly watch more.

I went to twitter to see what else you would deem a fiasco, and here are the answers I got. I would not classify all of these as fiascos—and some of them I think are quite successful on their own terms (or mine, since success can be subjective)—but I include them here for the sake of discussion and the fun of remembering "Ohhhhhhhh right."
• the SFF entrants: Ajooba, Drona, JokerLove Story 2050, Ra.One. These, I think, fall under the wisdom that when you swing big with the hopes of knocking it out of the park, sometimes you miss by a mile.
To me, Drona is close to a fiasco but not quite: it gets worse and worse as it goes along and nobody even seems to be having any fun (including, I imagine, the audience), but it succeeds in creating a weird villain, some beautiful and interesting sets and locations, and underlining the burden of the heroic quest (this is perhaps unintentional, thanks to Abhishek's droopy demeanor, but might also be deliberate in the script or by direction).
• high-profile, less genre-y, mainstream projects by people who should know better: Besharam (speaking of ignominious), My Name Is Khan post-interval, RGV Ki Aag, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka RajaTees Maar Khan, Veer
Oh Veer, you lovable scamp, you dreadful miscalculation. My memories of it are blurred by how hard I was laughing as I watched, but I think it might be the fiasco-iest of the things I've seen from this list.
• And some other films I know nothing about so will not classify: Abdullah (though the debut film of Bob Christo has served some purpose in the world), Galiyon Ka Badshah, Majhdhaar, Mera Naam Joker, Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.

What are your nominations for filmi fiascos? Remember, we're not necessarily talking about films that don't make back their costs or are hated by critics and/or audiences. To paraphrase Seinfeld, these movies are a mess—and they're spectacular.


Keith said…
First, thank you as always for the link and kind words. We are and shall forever be linked by Shaitani Dracula. I think the very nature of the film -- a no-budget z-grader aimed at turning a quick buck and probably getting Harinam Singh laid -- excludes it from being a true fiasco.

Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani -- for me, THAT is a fiasco. The monstrous egos behind the film, the hubris falling infinitely short of talent's ability to deliver, the fact tat everyone involved seemed to think they were going to blow everyone away and get carried through the streets of Mumbai in a lavish procession, so astoundingly awesome was their movie -- it is a perfect storm of total lack of talent and a reality-bending inability to recognize this lack, even after the fact.
Anonymous said…
Wait - who suggested Mera Naam Joker?? That one is actually really really good!! It's a bit ridiculous but more in an Om Shanti Om way than a fiasco way.

Films that have been suggested to me as fantastically terrible: Diya Aur Toofan ( and Jaani Dushman as Keith said
Unknown said…
Wait, why are people calling Jaani Dushman a fiasco? Where else can you see Raj Babbar uniting three religions in a way never ever seen in Bollywood? Now Hindustan ki Kasam , thats what you call a fiasco. Not to forget, Lal Badshah
Carol said…
Excellent piece, Beth. Your discussion of whether or not Shaitani Dracula qualifies as a fiasco brings up a couple of other elements in the definition--or at least elaborates on them.

It does seem like Harinam Singh fulfilled his goals, and that it is simultaneously impossible to be quite sure what those goals are. And further, that makes it seem impossible to say whether Shaitani Dracula violates the conventions of what is generally accepted as a movie for no reason. At the same time, that is a reflection of the response of an audience member whose goals are not necessarily being bmet, watching the film desperate to know what the hell is going on and attempting to connect to Harinam Singh as an artist and fit Shaitani Dracula into the category of "film." Which makes me wonder, where does directorial delusion fit?

And the second thought I have is: how important is scale? In the This American Life episode, the opening fiasco is a prison performance of a play (Hamlet, I think). That is a tiny scale--on par with Shaitani Dracula, probably--but still a pretty fine, and very pure, fiasco. On the other hand, there is something to be said for the delusion and failure that hundreds of millions of dollars can produce.

Anyway, I don't know where I stand on Shaitani Dracula as a fiasco, or these questions, but your piece brought them to mind.
Keith - Forever and ever, amen. How did I forget Jaani Dushman, other than that I have only seen it once many years ago? You're hitting all the key factors: ego, hubris, over-promise and under-deliver, blindness....

kayfil - Can't remember. I haven't seen it but the conventional wisdom about it that I've gathered over the years was that it was Raj Kapoor's dream that nobody bought. As for fantastically terrible films, I don't know what the likely overlap is of "fiasco" and "so bad it's good." Complicated!

Tiger - I have not seen these things and you can't make me.

Carol - re: Harinam Singh fulfilling his goals is that he has made several other fairly similar films, but does that mean he's simply repeating a successful formula OR that he keeps failing and thus needs to keep trying? Directorial delusion...are they delusional about what they set out to do or about what they accomplished? And do they manage to convince the audience to join the delusion? If so, then...success, I guess?

Re: scale: the TAL episode is about Peter Pan, which to me is a more modest starting point than Hamlet, but the person recounting the story of the production says it was a much more ambitious production than anyone in that community knew about or had experience with at the time, PLUS everyone in the area knew someone in or involved with the show, so the stakes were relatively very high. Scale has to be relative—otherwise hardly any entertainment that isn't a major Hollywood action or effects film could ever be a fiasco. This sense of scale is part of why Ra.One is I think very rightly considered for inclusion in fiasco (though I wouldn't decree it one): there are all sorts of major Bollywood movies with inconsistent and internally illogical scripts, but most of them don't cost as much to produce or star someone so huge, and they aren't hyped/marketed/product-tied-in to the truly insane levels that Ra.One was.
veracious said…
I think for a commercial cinema, the word fiasco brings to mind disastrous flops with major stars - certainly what I was thinking of when I replied to you. I don't think I've seen any fiascos in the definitions discussed in this post, in all honesty - there are bad films and ill-conceived films, but such few out-and-out fiascos in their marvelous, puzzling glory. Even as I've watched a lot of 'odd' Indian cinema, I seem to have missed out on the Desrodhi's of the world.

I recently watched the documentary The Best Worst Movie, about the cult success and making of Troll 2. It's an odd movie, for sure, and a bad movie in all accounts, but when it's got a huge fanbase that not only embraces its oddness, but almost kind of worships it, can you call that a fiasco? Maybe at its time, it was one, not getting a theater release, but now, by being known as the best worst movie in so many people's minds, surely that makes it kind of a success? I feel the same way about The Room, in all honesty. These films kind of failed in one regard, but succeeded in another. A fiasco in one hand, but a fairytale in another?

This is a weirdly complicated question.
aditisen said…
Let me add another name Beth. Rudraksh. If you haven't watched it, please do.
Anonymous said…
The cinematic minefields you MOSS agents dare to traverse never ceases to amaze me. I live in constant fear that I may be similarly tempted into venturing into fiasco territory :) It's probably only a matter of time. *Googles Shaitani Dracula compulsively...realizes with horror/delight that a proper viewing is only a click away*
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
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