Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bombay Talkies - 100 Years of Indian Cinema

Wow, am I ever late to this 100 years party! But what's a girl gonna do if Bollywood keeps spamming our theatres with nonsense while holding back on the real gems from this year! But chalo, I'll forgive them, not like I've been paying much attention lately, so I guess we're even.

(Seriously though, is it just me or can we count on one hand the movies that have had any thought put into them this year? Don't answer that! I still have hope for the last 2 months of the year.)

Happily, Reel Asian Festival decided to expand its reach and bring in some South Asian flavour as of this year, so we got treated royally to Bombay Talkies on opening night! And what a treat this little film is! Four stories, four short films, each about an aspect of Bollywood that sets Indian cinema apart from everything else (it really is all about Bollywood, so I won't try to sell this as a tribute to Indian cinema, they didn't). Each director was given free hand provided they stuck to the theme: how is cinema a part of the common man's life? And a fitting theme because nowhere else in the world is cinema such a huge part of everyday life.

Karan Johar - Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh

KJo showcases what he does best (and what Bollywood does best too): the big emotion. In his trademarked larger than life (and slightly over the top) style, he gives us a film about the struggle for identity, for acceptance, for companionship. And in between, music filling in the blanks of everything left unsaid. Because only in Bollywood can we find a song for every moment, no matter how big or small. Music, whose magic can break even the highest walls that people build around themselves without requiring an invitation.

Kudos to Karan for being all balls and tackling a topic that is clearly close to his heart: homophobia. And a topic that needs to be talked about more in Indian cinema in general. The right way, not that comic relief bullshit we often see in "comedies".

This segment means more for Indian cinema as a concept than the story itself. It shows how far they've come from the days when the father of the bride would punch the potential groom to keep him away from his precious daughter. And what makes this step even more powerful is that it wasn't one of the niche, hindie directors giving us this story, it was one of the most mainstream, most high-profile directors in Indian cinema these past couple of decades. Karan, sincerely, I am so proud of you!

Dibakar Banerjee - Star

It's hard to think about Dibakar Banerjee's movie without laughing out loud because in an otherwise very serious film about a man trying to find work to support his family in a big city, the thing that makes the most impacty is Anjali, the emu. I don't know how, or who, or why they put that emu into every shot of this film, but was that ever a stroke of genius!

Though, in all fairness to the director and the actors, when I'm done laughing I think about this segment fondly because it carries a simple message about family: stories are the glue that keeps people together. And what good are stories if there is no one to share them with?

The film itself is about a failed actor who gets a two-hour job as an extra in a Ranbir Kapoor movie. Sunken hopes, unmet potential and harsh life realities are indeed the director's staples, so we're not surprised to see these themes in his short, but what surprised me was the warmth that Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought into the film. I don't know if his antics were supposed to be funny or endearing but he sure managed to put a bitter-sweet smile on everyone's face. This segment got a huge round of applause from the audience when it ended and rightfully so.

Zoya Akhtar - Sheila Ki Jawaani 

On the surface Zoya Akhtar's film is about following your dreams, about filmi idols inspiring us to venture on paths previously unexplored, driving us to fulfill our potential. And it's about Katrina Kaif dressed as a butterfly (coughWTF!!cough).

But when has Zoya Akhtar ever told a simple story?

It's astonishing how much social commentary Zoya can cram into a half hour short with each line driving another point home. Her film doesn't just talk about a boy choosing a career path. She talks about consumerism and how it's become such a part of the Indian culture; she talks about the differences between raising a girl and raising a boy, even for a middle class family; she talks about homophobia; she talks about making it in Bollywood; she talks about patriarchy; she talks about family dynamics.

And she does this while showing the power of dance, another staple of Indian cinema that I hope never goes away.

Seriously, how fabulous was this kid? My jaw was on the floor when he started to dance

And how much did I love that it wasn't some yesteryear actress doing complicated pirouettes, but Katrina Kaif shaking her bellybutton to Sheila Ki Jawani. Because yes, Zoya, even I have had enough of people lamenting the golden days long gone. This is Bollywood's present and it's about time we owned it. Good and bad, progressive and regressive. Own it, live it, love it! (Even though you'll find me on Twitter annoyed with various episodes of regression... What? I'm not perfect either!)

Anurag Kashyap - Murabba 

This is Bollywood comedy at its best! I've been very disappointed this year with the amount of silly comedy (and I am being extremely kind with that adjective) coming into theatres. So much so that I started to doubt why I ever enjoyed any kind of comedy coming out of India. Thankfully Kashyap and Dibakar reminded me why I absolutely love a story that can weave in an intelligent amount of silliness without resorting to dumb gags.

Dibakar's emu and Kashyap's absurd quest for a star's acknowledgement, topped off with the delightful twist at the end, were some of the best elements in the movies. And they reminded me that, when it doesn't leave its brain at home, India can make some pretty fabulous comedy. Extra points for showing the absurdity of filmi fandom in a very subversive way.

This segment, like Dibakar's, was mostly about storytelling and family. But in true Anurag Kashyap style, it took the topic and showed us another side of it: storytelling brings all kinds of emotions out of people. And they're not all good emotions. I loved how this film was as much about keeping tradition alive through stories, as it was about navigating the present through them, sometimes to unexpected results.

But... since nothing can be perfect in Bollywood, this excellent collection of stories and thoughts ends on the most unforgivably bad note. This song!

I don't even know where to start. The choreography? Yeah, I know, don't say it: what choreography? The tacky gold costumes? The really REALLY bad lip syncing? The horrendous song? The cheesy dramatic turn that each star does as their "entrance"? The shower of gold? The slow motion grandpa SRK shots? No but really... Who put this together? It's atrocious! Not even Kareena rocking that sexy dress can save it for me! What a waste of all these stars!

Still... If I remember to turn off the film right before it in the future, Bombay Talkies makes for a delightful experience. A treat for the senses, for the brain, and for the Bollywood lover in all of us. Nothing makes me happier than a movie that gives me more than just a narrative. And Bombay Talkies is so much more than the four stories it so skillfully tells. It's a snapshot of the diversity, the creativity and why not, the pizzazz, that Bollywood has given us for the past 100 years. Here's to 100 more!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kai Po Che Review

Let me start by apologizing publicly for what seems to be a criminal sin these days among the Twitterati: I have absolutely no bias against Chetan Bhagat. Judging by everything I read in my timeline it feels like I should, because everyone with a brain does, so I do feel entirely inadequate here, but... well... I just have nothing against the guy. I read Five Point Someone and actually found it much better than the movie. [insert gasp] Not in the way it's written necessarily, it's certainly not great prose, but for what it has to say. I actually felt that 3 Idiots failed glamorously at capitalizing on the true messages of the book. In fact, it completely missed the point in its attempt to glorify Aamir Khan's character. [moar gasp] But oh well, the movie was a huge hit, so what do I know? And to be fair, even I liked it and saw it 3 times. 

But having learned my lesson, I decided against reading the book that inspired Kai Po Che, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, so even though I went in with many other biases, the book was not one. That said, I unfortunately can't comment on whether or not the movie was better, so I guess that's my loss (but hey, it makes the review shorter, so your gain!).

I'm not sure why but it feels like Kai Po Che has been massively anticipated. Has it? Sometimes I can't tell if it's just the crowd I chat with or the whole universe (the two entities tend to merge in my head), but it feels like it's been talked about forever. Despite all that, I couldn't get into the trailer, and ultimately the only two reasons why I went to see it were a) the irresistible company of blog pals Katherine and Larissa, and b) THAT song by Amit Tridevi. You know which one.

The comparisons will be inevitable, so let's get this out of the way early: it's no Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and it's no Dil Chahta Hai. Well, apart from the fact that it has three male characters and the relationships between them. But whereas in those two films the characters sucked you in principally because of the brilliant dialogues between them, here the dialogue almost sabotages the characters by giving them so little to fall back on. The script is the ultimate dude-communication showcase: brief, snappy and only when absolutely necessary. It's not loaded with meaning either, so you won't take away any brilliant quotes or anything like that. And somehow that worked really well for me because when they do get emotional, it's powerful and primal.

Luckily for it, Kai Po Che is more than just a bro-story about how Ishaan, Omi and Govind grow up, become responsible and face their inner demons. Sure, there's that too, but on top of that there's this other layer of growing up in the world as it is right now, a world that forces you to pick sides. This is no Rang de Basanti  where corruption was something that the elders were involved in while the heroes were pure as snowflakes. It's not Shanghai where politics exist only to be fought against. And it's certainly not the easy living spirit of Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi.

No one is an idealist in this movie, and the fact that every one of the 3 heroes walks a fine line between selfish prick and devoted friend is what makes them real. I appreciated the ambiguity of their "why"s: why is Ishaan so adamant about protecting Ali: is it to satisfy his own ambitions, or because of his fatherly affection for the kid? Why is Omi so easily sucked into his uncle's political shenanigans: does he truly believe in it or is he just trapped? Why is Govi so ambitious: is he the only one acting like a grown-up or is he just greedy? We're free to think of our own answers, and I'm sure some will pick the worst answers and outright dislike all three characters. Me, I just found them believable, which sometimes is more valuable than finding them likeable.

Sadly what stops it from being a great movie is the pace, and the unnecessary accent on details that everyone knows. We didn't need to be shown the communal riots in Ahmedabad in such detail, even I knew about them. We didn't need to see every single run of every single cricket match, we get it, they're down, then they win (apologies if this is a spoiler but it's supposed to be a historic cup match, so even more of a reason for people to already know what's gonna happen). And we certainly didn't need to see the wounded carried away from the sites of the earthquake crashes. This plague of underestimating your audience's intelligence seems to still be going strong in Indian film makers, and that's sad for a movie as polished as this. The events shown are part of the story, it's true, in fact they make the story, but they should be recognized as catalysts and not given centre stage. Because at the end of the day all we care about is how they'll affect the characters.

One leitmotif that I did appreciate however has to do with the cricket matches and for this I will forgive some of the excessive attention given to the various crickety episodes. I found it telling that almost every make-up scene happens during a cricket match, and throughout the movie it's a theme that keeps coming back: money, politics and religion separate people, sports bring them together. There's one scene in particular that is masterfully done, and that's Omi and Ishaan making up after one of their fights against the backdrop of a cricket match. No words are needed, and no explanations for the audience either, we can feel how powerful that moment was and why such passion simply had to be shared with a best friend. And while on the topic of cricket (of which there's a lot in the film, too much even), I have to say that as a hockey fan I chuckled every time Ishaan would make everyone stand still during an important play. Superstitions are such a big part of watching sports, maybe one of the most fun parts, so it was cool to see that acknowledged, like an inside joke that everyone knows.

Of course none of this whole exercise would work without the performances and, especially with such a sparse script, it's impressive how natural the chemistry is between all these characters. Sushant Singh Rajput is a live wire and we can see why everyone gravitates towards him, he's that guy who makes everything more fun. Raj Kumar Yadav is not surprisingly fabulous in his understated way, and he wins you over from the first scene with Amit Sadh when he breaks into an uncomfortable smile. Speaking of that first scene, Amit Sadh didn't impress me in the whole movie as much as he blew me over in the "present day" scenes. The sorrow in his eyes, his slouched posture as if the weight of the whole world was on his shoulders, his hesitant gestures, we forgive him before even knowing the story. And let's not forget the radiant Amrita Puri who has the difficult task of playing an innocent airhead and a relentless seductress at the same time.

Though I doubt we can forgive her for dressing poor Govind in THAT:

Don't get me wrong, that dandiya song rocked, but was that terrible outfit really necessary? Ugh!

But anyway, since we're talking about songs, I'll spare you the requisite Amit Tridevi homage and just talk about how much I loved the way the songs were juxtaposed with the story. It truly felt like they were traveling with the movie, a string sewing together the different scenes in the story. And with a movie as beautifully shot as this, what more can you ask for?

If there's one objection I have against Kai Po Che is that it tries to be too many things: a sports movie, social commentary, a bromance, a love story, a drama, a disaster movie, and as expected, it can't possibly succeed at all of them. But even while realizing that during the film, by the time the end credits roll up you have to think long and hard about what didn't work for you. And that's what makes a movie worth while. I'd be surprised if this one did poorly at the box office, though if there's a country you can count on for surprises at the box office, it's definitely India.

Kai Po Che (2013, Hindi)
Starring: Sushant Singh Rajput, Raj Kumar Yadav, Amit Sadh, Amrita Puri
Director: Abhishek Kapoor
Music: Amit Trivedi

PS: Last but not least because this has been bugging me: WHICH makers of Rang De Basanti?? Dear Indian trailer copywriters, please stop trying to subliminal message us. It may backfire on you. I for one was put off by the mention of RDB because it's one of my favourite movies and I wasn't in the least bit curious to see a movie that claims to be similar to it. Luckily for me, the two have nothing in common. Well, except for the producers, who happen to also have their hands in just about every moving image that comes with a censor certificate in front of it. So yeah... whatever.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Filmy Moments in India

A lot of people asked me when I came back from India if I was going to blog about it. And I said: naah. With so many travel blogs out there, who cares that one more gori went to India, right? But for the past couple of weeks I've been remembering different moments from this trip, most of them having to do with movies, and they were moments I was wishing I could share with you guys even as they were happening, so I guess I will blog about my trip to India a little bit. Don't worry, I won't dwell on culture shock and opinions on India as a country, this is a full-on filmy post.

I should mention I am writing this while listening to Radha, because, as fellow Bollywood lover and travel companion Larissa noted, it was the song that followed us everywhere. Guess I underestimated KJo's ear for a popular soundtrack. This was omnipresent!

Our trip started in Varanasi, for the first part of a three-part wedding celebration, where pretty much everything was filmy. Having ladoos in the bridal suite while waiting for the sangeet, sneaking out of the bride's party to go meet the baaraat outside, helping the bride drape her sari for one of the many poojas (I'm particularly proud of this one), participating in the haldi ceremony, chasing some kids around in a (successful) attempt to steal the groom's shoe, sneaking things in and out for the bride, chilling with the aunties, none of this stuff happens at weddings here, so it was all new and very filmy for me. Everything reminded me of some movie or other.

Dev D anyone?

I thought Varanasi itself would remind me of a film I had seen recently at TIFF, The Bright Day. It didn't, and I understand now why the director Mohit Takalkar and the cinematographer Amol Gole were so highly praised for this film. One thing I will have to say about Varanasi though: it's a ridiculously photogenic place.

After Varanasi we went to Hyderabad. And any Tollywood fan will know exactly where we went first.

Golconda Fort!!!

Our guide was not impressed with the fact that we wanted to be shown the exact spot where Pokiri was filmed (in fact I suspect he didn't even know because he dodged the question until we found it ourselves), but we didn't really care. And luckily there were no guides to frown upon our excitement the next day when we went to see the Char Minar. Eeeeee!!!

Char Minar

The next stop was Mumbai. And Mumbai turned out to be less filmi and more boring than it looked in the movies. The only time we came close to Bollywood was running into a huge crowd in front of the Taj. Unable to see anything past the crowd, we stopped to ask some backup camera crew people who were just chilling by the trailer. The conversation went like this:

Dolce: What are they shooting for?
Camera guy: Oh, it's for an ad.
Dolce: Who's the star?
Camera guy: Uh, it's a film star.
Dolce: Yes, but who?
Camera guy (dismissively): It's a Bollywood actor.
Dolce: Arre yaar, WHICH Bollywood actor??
Camera guy (tentatively): Vivek Oberoi.
Dolce (while exchanging a disappointed look with Larissa): Oh. It's only Vivek Oberoi. Let's go.
Camera guy picks up jaw from the floor.

Victoria Terminus

But Mumbai had other more delicious meetings reserved for us. I had one of the best dinners in India with, fittingly, a food blogger: the gorgeous Swati Sapna. And it was exactly how I imagined our first meeting: fillums fillums fillums. We covered everything from upcoming releases to classics like Pithamagan, to AR Rahman soundtracks, the IIFAs and just about every Bollywood and Kollywood star out there (granted, some more than others). In between we talked about food from all parts of India, living in Mumbai, traveling, work, but really, who am I kidding, it was back to filmi talk within a minute of trying to talk about anything else. In short: a perfect night!

The filminess continued the next morning when we left Mumbai because our driver was in love with the Zeher soundtrack. So we heard Woh Lamhe (one of my favourites) and Agar Tum Mil Jao about a dozen times on the way to the airport, which was cool by me.

And so, to the sweet sound of Atif Aslam's voice, we were off to Chennai, where another blog friend had promised a long time ago to give me a filmi tour of the city. Mukundh met us at the airport and hung out with us quite a bit while we were in Chennai, which was great because it's the city where I would have felt the most lost. It helps that he's a very attentive host and all kinds of adorable, but he'll kill me if he gets to know I said that in public, on top of being a knowledgeable tourguide. So not only did I get my filmi tour of where everyone lives and works and where cool stuff (read Mani Ratnam stuff) was filmed, but I got most of it from the back of a motorbike. Howzzat for cool?

Checking out the Broken Bridge in Adyar, a reminder that I have to watch Ayudha Ezhuthu already!

Of course when you're not on a motorbike in Chennai you have a very big chance of being in a rickshaw all done up with filmi heroes.

Vijay is EVERYwhere in Tamil Nadu. Everywhere!
TN definitely takes it away for hero worship, and it's the only place where I can't even remember whose picture we saw first on a hoarding (could be because I had a helmet three sizes too big on my head, but I'll never admit to that). In Mumbai it was Salman followed shortly by Katrina (coincidence, I swear!). In Hyderabad it was obviously Mahesh Babu. Kerala was all about Aishwarya, though the very first hoarding we saw in Kochi was none other than blog-favourite Prithviraj. But I'll be damned if I can remember who we saw first in Chennai. Madhavan, Vijay, Rajini, Surya, they're all everywhere, from stickers and t-shirts in malls, to hoardings and shop signs. We even saw a stand in Mamallapuram selling cutouts of all the heroes (or maybe selling the opportunity to take a picture with one? We'll never know, we refused to pay to click a picture).

The Lighthouse in Pondy

We did the obligatory daytrip to Pondycherry and had the obligatory steak, but my favourite place was by far Mamallapuram, with its unassuming beaches and elegant ruins. It was the first time when I felt, truly felt, that I was visiting a country and a culture with thousands of years of history.

Next on our filmi itinerary: Dabangg 2 in a single screen theatre in Kochi!! Our lovely and very funny host in Kochi was none other than Amrita, of Masala Zindabad Podcast fame. Amrita told us all about Kochi back in the day, took us to some of her favourite spots (and her favourite restaurant immediately became my favourite restaurant too!), helped me do some jewellery shopping, and, this is the moment everyone's been waiting for, took us to see Dabangg 2!

Now the movie is really not much to talk about, in fact we had already forgotten the plot by interval (probably because there was none), but I could tell you stories about this experience for hours! It was the only time in India when I found the curiosity surrounding us perfectly justified: 2 goras, 2 goris, plus Amrita walking into a single screen theatre on opening day. Need I even mention that the audience was over 90% males? And that some were dressed for the occasion (read Salman style)? No, I don't think I have to. Either way, as soon as the movie started, the atmosphere was a blast. I want to lament the fact that "the atmosphere" also included an asshole who was answering his phone during pretty much the entire first half, but I already said we went to see this movie in India, so I have a feeling that's implied.

But let's be honest. I wasn't there to hear the dialogues. I wasn't there to see Salman headbutt a fist (though that was a great bonus). I wasn't there to watch a good movie. I was there to watch this:

And man was that ever a treat! Watching that theatre clap, cheer, whistle and catcall during the entire item number made me understand why item numbers won't be going anywhere for a loooong time to come. It also made me understand why actresses who we think are not worthy of them get paid royally to dance in item numbers. Because it's not about the dancing. It's not about the acting. And it's not about the significance of the song in the context of the film. It's simply about Kareena Kapoor being sexy as hell in a backless choli for 5 whole minutes. And that, my dear readers, was the most valuable filmi lesson I learned in India.

From Kochi we went to another filmi destination: the Athirapally Waterfalls.

If the name doesn't tell you anything, it's the place where they filmed this beauty!

Definitely worth a trip if you're in the area, though maybe not two days before Christmas because it's packed.

Another favourite place in India was our next stop, but nothing filmi happened there so I have no excuse to post a picture. Oh but wait! I do! Guess who was omnipresent even around the canals of Alleppey?

Vijay's jewellery ads were matched in number only by Madhavan's
And Larissa and I had a little debate about whether or not that's his mom in real life, so any knowledge on the topic is welcome. Though most of the time we were just quietly enjoying scenery such as this:

And this:

We left Alleppey to the soothing sound of another great AR Rahman song: the lovely Jashn-e-Bahara. He seems to have followed us around on this trip too, but I suppose that's to be expected in India. And we certainly missed Rahman in Kanyakumari where we spent Christmas. Because little did we know that these giant speakers that can be seen in pretty much every open space, in every village and town,

... would keep us up all night AND all Christmas day by playing - nay - blasting music like it was the end of the world. I used to like Nakka Mukka.

Now I kinda wanna shoot myself when I hear it.

But luckily our nightmarish stay in Kanyakumari was followed by the peaceful tea plantations in Munnar. And to go back to the AR Rahman themed soundtrack of our South-India trip, the song that will always remind me of Munnar is Challa, because it was playing on someone's boombox while I was taking pictures of our spectacular view. What a perfect moment!

After a very chilled out visit to Mysore, which I loved, one last filmy meet-up was waiting in Mumbai. They say you should only do things you enjoy on January the 1st because that's how the rest of the year will pass too. And if that's true, I'm looking at a deliciously fun 2013 because I spent my January 1st with the super-cute Vistrit, discovering ice-cream flavours (custard apple FTW!), shopping for Indian sweets in Bandra and getting schooled on the do's and dont's of fancy desi-wear (closed toe shoes are a resounding NO with saris, apparently. Ooops!). Couldn't have dreamt a better ending for this trip!

It's hard to describe your first visit to India when people ask. It's such a whirlwind of impressions, good and bad, so many stories you can tell and so many moments you can't even begin to describe. But the one thing I never fail to mention in my stories about India is how many cool people I got to meet and hang out with. Because for me that was the best part of the whole trip and it's the reason why I can't wait to go back.

Well... ok, fine, and the food.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola

Man this title is a mouthful! And well... so is the movie. And an earful. And an eyeful. (Do all these words even exist?? No matter. Nor do pink buffaloes.) I went to this one with little excitement after reading all the disappointed tweets and reviews. Could this be the first time that my favourite director lets me down? Because while I have come to expect duds from pretty much everyone else, Vishal Bhardwaj was standing alone as the only director who has not made a single bad movie, in this blogger's opinion anyway (and I know many don't agree). His new venture, a film about a wacky trio and their messed up relationships, is set against the backdrop of a village trying to save their land from the scheming politicians and the greedy industrialists. With so much stuff going on, I was ready for anything.

So... how did it go, you ask?

Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is my least favourite Vishal Bhardwaj film. But that said, the man has yet to let me down, because even my least favourite film of his has me going back to the theatre for a rewatch. And I'll say it right from the beginning, it's my least favourite because I am used to Vishal Bhardwaj running a much tighter ship than this. With his previous projects one thing was always certain: you either liked the whole thing, or you didn't. There were never half measures, or scenes that could be taken out, there was never room for improvement from the direction point of view. Maybe his characters were objectionable (7 Khoon Maaf), maybe his script was too twisted (Kaminey), maybe his setting was too perplexing (Maqbool), but his sense of what's important for the movie could never be questioned. With MKBKM this did not hold true. It was as if, unable to choose which scenes would get the most laughs, or the most emotional support, Vishal just decided to leave them all in and let people choose their own adventure. Not an unpardonable sin, for sure, but an unexpected slip from such a confident director.

That said, I've always adored his sense of humour, even in films that were not meant to be comedies, so how could I not love the first film where he goes all out on the LOLs? And as it turns out, despite the uneven pace, a few days later I still laugh out loud thinking about some of the scenes in MKBKM, having forgotten all the times when the film fumbled. Now some would say that a few scenes are not enough to make a decent movie, and I would normally agree. But if you add to those scenes a wicked soundtrack (with picturizations to match), exquisite visuals (a VB trademark), a superb performance from its leading actor (no, not Imran Khan, the real leading actor) and a pink buffalo, then it's a different conversation altogether. Because, and this is key, in order to fully enjoy Matru ki Bijlee you have to always keep in mind that it's the kind of movie where there is a pink buffalo, sitting on a bed, laughing. And if you shrugged your shoulders or raised your eyebrow reading that, I suggest you skip this one, I doubt you'll consider your money well spent.

The film begins with the most hilarious smoking warning that essentially tells you that everything you're doing, from texting to drinking lemonade can cause you harm. As if that was not enough, the first scene sees Matru (Imran Khan) and Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapoor) driving a limousine into a liquor shop to get to their precious beer on a dry day. Now don't get your hopes up, not everything in the film will have you howling with laughter as these two scenes did. But there will be plenty more where that came from, that's for sure.

What I love about Bhardwaj's sense of humour (and not to take anything away from the execution, but I'll get to that in a minute) is that he plays so well with contradictions. So when a drunk Harry Mandola leads a procession against himself, complete with the best song on the soundtrack, you don't even go WTF!, you skip straight to laughing because it just makes sense.

Similarly, when the power-hungry politician asks why the fields that she was going to seize from the villagers are now singing with bountiful crops, and she gets the answer: "It rained. On time.", you once again crack up because nothing in India is EVER on time and it's so hilarious that something being on time can actually ruin one's plans.

Then of course there are the more subtle ironies, which are even more satisfying. One of my favourites involves Matru taking the plight of the farmers to a multi-million, multi-national company with offices in a sky-scraper in order to get the grains sold overseas. This in the context of preventing a local multi-million company from seizing the lands and building what? A mall and some skyscrapers. It's a scene that seems a little bit tacked on and I wondered for a while why it was even in the film, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced Vishal Bhardwaj was fully aware of the irony of this situation.

And lest I forget, the most delectable irony of them all is Harry Mandola himself, a character who is more of a human being when drunk than sober. Only Bhardwaj could even think of such a character. In a world where entire films get made about abusive drunkards and about the tragic consequences of alcoholism (and nothing against that, awareness is a great thing), Mandola is a man who is not only fun and loving when drunk, but he actually has us cheering against his attempts at staying on the wagon because sobriety turns him into a cold-hearted greedy realist.

Then again, on the topic of contradictions, it's interesting to notice that not just Mandola, but every important character in the film has an alter ego that prevents them from doing the right thing (or that serves as a mask when they do it). No one is who they seem to be, everyone has something to hide about themselves. A theme that comes back again and again throughout the film in covert or explicit ways. For crying out loud, there are two avatars even for the pink buffalo! And this alter ego motif extends somehow to the entire film: a social satire disguised sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as serious drama. If only the two sides had been weaved together as well as the two Harrys, or the two Matrus, or the two Bijlees.

And I can't move on without mentioning a contradiction that is very close to my heart (and I say this tongue in cheek, as always), namely the fight to preserve an agrarian society (deemed ethically superior to the capitalist pigs) made possible by the leadership of a communist icon (or rather his Indian avatar): Mao. And I won't even begin on this one, I'll just say it always amuses me that this rivalry still exists and it still makes for entire movie plots. It's like love at first sight, it simply won't go away.

It's almost redundant to speak about performances in a Vishal Bhardwaj film because, well, they're always stellar. And certainly the man is doing everyone a favour by having the fabulous Pankaj Kapoor do what he does best: act. Please, Vishal, keep him in business forever so he doesn't get any more ideas about directing. Okay, thanks! Seriously though, I've always liked Pankaj Kapoor and I always looked forward to his performance in a movie, but in this film he outdoes himself. The drunken mumbles, the deadpan expressions, the sleazy-flirty passes at Shabana's character (whose over the top delivery reminded me of her delicious character in Makdee), the zest with which he throws himself into the songs, Pankaj Kapoor is a one-man-show that keeps you entertained even when the rest of the film falters. Truly an outstanding performance for which he will probably not even see a nomination because such is the way the world turns.

The film's supporting actors (because next to Kapoor everyone else is just filler) all do a good job, though I'm sad to say that for all the support I have given him over the years this is the first time when Imran Khan disappoints me. It doesn't help that he's never looked hotter and that his chemistry with Anuskha Sharma delivers one of the most intense kisses we've seen in Bollywood (as an aside, I think I have a soft spot for women throwing themselves at him, it totally worked for me in Delhi Belly too).

So with all this good stuff helping him, I would have expected to love him in this, and yet his performance is the weakest link in this film. I can't put my finger on it because I've seen him deliver better in similar situations in other films, but something was missing from this performance. Then again... dude knows how to rock a beard and earrings, so that gets him off the hook. This time.

Anushka Sharma still has my vote even though I was hoping to see a different role from her. And to be fair, in this one, her trademarked sunny disposition turns out to be nothing but a cover-up for the disappointments in her life. If her poor rich girl character had been a little more developed there was definitely room for Anushka to experiment with a more serious role. But no matter. She does this role well so I'm ok with seeing a good thing repeated. Plus, give it to Vishal to include some cheeky dialogues about her penchant for skimpy clothing. Nothing like a good dose of meta-commentary.

Sadly, for all the good stuff crammed in this film, there is also room for plenty of details that don't quite work. For example as much as I appreciated the tribal vibe of the songs, and for all my love of a woman who can deliver a good booty-shake, the inclusion of the South African performers was completely gratuitous and poorly justified. Either that or I didn't get the joke. Maybe I'll get it when I see the film again this week.

In the meantime I'll just keep laughing to myself at all the clever dialogues and all the quirky visuals because they're the main reason why this film worked for me. They don't seem to have been enough for most reviewers, so unfortunately this is not a one-size-fits-all movie, but then comedy hardly ever is. And it's safe to assume that most reviewers are not as easily distracted by eye-candy as me. Uff!

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (Hindi, 2013)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Starring: Pankaj Kapoor, Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Shabana Azmi, Arya Babbar
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saagar - an Unexpected Favourite

A couple of weeks ago I saw Naseeruddin Shah at a TIFF Bell Lightbox event in Toronto and, among other entertaining topics, he talked about his experience shooting Kamal Hassan's Hey Ram!. Naseer complained that the make-up he was required to wear to play Gandhi was so elaborate that he could barely act from behind it. After refusing to wear some parts of the mask, he allegedly even told Kamal to play the role of Gandhi himself, since the actor's personality would not come through anyway because of the prosthetics. This made me laugh a lot because I've been complaining about Kamal's obsession with prosthetics for a long time now: it's distracting to the point where I can't enjoy his acting and it's been getting worse. I'm terrified of Vishwaroopam for that very reason. But anyways, all this to explain what made me decide to hunt down Kamal's older movies, from before all this make-up nonsense even existed. This is how I ended up watching Saagar. And good thing I did because it confirmed why Kamal is considered one of the greats in Indian cinema! I absolutely adored him.

Saagar reminded me a lot of Rangeela (though reminded is the wrong verb since Saagar preceded Rangeela by a good decade), minus the brilliant Pyaar Yeh and minus Jackie Shroff's bikini. You win some you lose some, I suppose. Saagar has a very similar love triangle: childhood friends Raja and Mona live in a fisherman's village where they have everything they need despite being poor. In comes Ravi, the rich heir to the developing fishing business, and falls in love with Mona. Ravi and Raja become friends without realizing that they love the same girl. And the story goes on from here.

Part of the reason why I can't stand older films is because they rely so heavily on silly plot devices to create over the top melodrama. So the whole time while watching Saagar I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When Raja and Ravi start becoming friends and singing songs together I thought: Oh God, any minute now they'll discover they love the same woman and they'll start competing for her and turn into assholes. Luckily this fabulous song was not ruined by such a follow-up.

When Raja later confesses his love for Mona to Ravi asking for his advice on how to express his feelings, I thought: Here we go, cue in lame scene where one character confesses someone else's love while secretly confessing their own. And I know you know exactly what I mean which is why I won't even bother to clean up that sentence and make it intelligible. Surprisingly, that doesn't happen.

Finally, about halfway through the film, when Raja finds out about Mona and Ravi and he's running heartbroken on the beach I thought this is it, for sure he'll trip on one of those rocks, hit his head and fall into a coma that will prompt a guilty Mona to give up Ravi. And imagine my surprise when that didn't happen either! As it turns out, the entire movie was written with common-sense and, barring the occasional "nahiiiiiiin" and "yeh shaadi nahin ho sakta" scene, the filmi tropes didn't poke their ugly noses into the story in an offensive manner.

What I liked most about Saagar was that all the main characters make their choices based on their own moral compass. Not because of the family honour, not because of the societal pressure and certainly not because of emotional blackmail. Actually, for once, the emotional blackmail goes the other way! Do you have any idea how refreshing it is to see a movie like this coming out of the 80s? I mean, sure it has the required twists and turns later on, and yes, some of them employ some of those pesky tropes, but it is Bollywood after all, not even I would expect it to be completely devoid of melodrama. What's important is that the three main characters keep it real and honest, they speak their minds when needed and don't leave room for misunderstandings and silliness.

Dimple is so gorgeous in this movie, even more so than usual!

For once I never felt the need to yell at the TV or throw shoes at it. Believe me, this is a first for me while watching a movie older than 2001. Well, I did get bored towards the end when all the drama-shrama was happening (and coincidentally, that was also the time when Kamal wasn't around for a good half hour of the film), but hey, it's a small price to pay. Especially when you're bribed with exquisite filmi moments such as this one:

Saagar surprised me in more ways than one. It's also the first movie where Rishi Kapoor was completely out-charisma-ed by his co-stars. Dimple is always a joy to watch, especially when she's looking as glamorous as she does here (despite her "common girl" status, but hey, what's Bollywood without the designer clothes?), but the real star of this movie is Kamal Hassan who steals every scene, every song, every frame. He has these little gestures, this light in his eyes, these little eyerolls, chuckles and smiles, I tell you, I was mesmerized. Of course it helps that he was so easy on the eyes too back in the day.

For crissakes, he even pulls off the all-demin + unbuttoned shirt outfit! How many other actors can do that without looking like complete fools?

I don't think I'll ever subscribe to the belief that old is gold, but if a movie ever came close to swaying me, Saagar was that movie. And it feels right for it to be the first oldie to get a full blogpost around here. I wish more people would talk about it, but maybe it's not melodramatic enough. Oh well, it was just the right amount for me, so if you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend it!

Saagar (1985, Hindi)
Director: Ramesh Sippy
Starring: Dimple Kapadia, Kamal Hassan, Rishi Kapoor
Music: RD Burman