Saturday, July 16, 2011

4 Karats in Silver: Shor in the City

I used to be a big fan of the TV show Heroes... aaaand had a huge crush on Sendhil Ramamurthy. What? Didn't everyone? Well, until he started getting the plague or something and then I couldn't look at him anymore. But that's beside the point.

At any rate, just wanted to state how happy I was to find that he was acting in a Hindi film, and as if that were not enough to get me to watch it (trust me, it was!), a film made by the same team who gave us the awesomeness that was "99" (Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru). Of course, it didn't actually get an international release, so I had to wait for the DVD which luckily did not take long (even if that means that it didn't do all that well in theatres). So now I am on a mission to get everyone to watch it!

Shor is divided into 3 tracks that criss-cross at different points in the film, each track inspired by stories that made the news in the past decade. On the one hand we have the small-time crooks Tilak (Tusshar Kapoor), Mandook (Pitobash) and Ramesh (Nikhil Dwivedi) who make a living by selling whatever they can steal from crowded buses. They also have a side printing business, selling books (some unreleased) at traffic lights.

The second track is Abhay (Sendhil Ramamurthy) as the NRI returning to India (after what we are lead to believe was not a rosy past in the US) to set up a business. Easier said than done because the street mafia is there to make money on his every move.

Finally I discovered with great joy that the third track belongs to Sundeep Kishan, an actor I had already loved in Prasthanam. He plays Sawan, a young man trying to make it into the junior cricket team across layers and layers of corruption.

Holding on to his girlfriend turns out to be the other major headache in his life.

By the way, just a quick pit-stop on the art direction front, how hilarious is this shot? Love it!

There are some moral issues with the story that I think are dealt with a little too lightly. I kept comparing Shor with 99 just because it's made by the same guys, but 99 never leaves its zone of goofy, harmless fun which makes its comedy perfectly adequate. In Shor on the other hand, the issues at hand are much heavier, which in my opinion required they be treated a tad more seriously. Just an example: a kid running with a bomb about to detonate in his hand - NOT funny. Sorry, but no. In any universe. As a matter of fact neither is playing with guns. Also, Abhay's solution to his problems is hardly acceptable for a hero, but then I don't think he was meant as a hero to begin with, so that one I can't object too much to.

Despite being disappointed by the general direction of the morals of the film (that direction being nowhere), I still loved it. Not because it's funny (99 is much funnier), and not because it creates some lasting characters. I loved it because it creates little pockets of magic that are absolutely unforgettable. The relationship between Tilak and his new wife is one of the major highlights for me, and all their little moments make a lasting impression, whether it's their coy attempts at consummating their marriage, or Tilak proudly showing off to his (college graduate) wife the traffic signal where his printing business comes to fruition, every single moment they spend on screen is so heavy with sweetness that it's hard to even think of them as part of the same film.

I found the references to Paulo Coelho's "Alchemist" hilarious (a book that everyone, myself included, loved in high school, but then most of us got over it). Whether this was the way I wanted to see it or the movie meant it that way, every single reference to "the philosophy" of The Alchemist suggested that this book is considered philosophy mostly by people who lack education, or by people who haven't read any better. Even the fact that the only educated character in the film had loved it in high school is a backhanded compliment. The snob in me was enjoying this way more than it would be polite. Though in the end, I must bow to its power to make people think positively about their lives and to steer them in the right direction, so credit where it's due, it was well used in the film.

Other pockets of brilliance are the glimpses of what shapes up to be the backstage of the spectacle that is Mumbai: people who get paid to organize rallies and riots, people who get paid to "make the right choice" for the cricket team, people who ask for bribes at every street corner. You could say it's a movie about corruption, except it's not, because corruption is such a fact of life that it never quite rises up to the level where it becomes its own entity in the story. It's just there, in the background of every event, you know about it, and you move on. I've seen the same type of subtlety before in Dhobi Ghat, in reference to poverty, and I always appreciate this matter-of-fact treatment of certain themes. 

 To top it all off, these little pockets of brilliance are brought to life by some wonderful performances from everyone involved, from the smallest goonda to the blink-and-you'll-miss-them secondary characters like Sejal's mother or Sawan's sister, or even Sejal herself.

I have seen Sundeep Kishan only in 2 movies so far but he's quickly becoming a favourite, so I was following his story with a lot of interest. Also notable because he's the only character whom you want to see being good, maybe because of his age, or maybe because of his predicament, but he was the only one I kept hoping would rise above the muck. His little moments with his sister and his brother in law, his fights with the stressed girlfriend, Sundeep lends this character such tenderness and vulnerability that you can't help but care for him in a way that you don't for everyone else, Sendhil's shirtless scene notwithstanding.

While we're talking about Sundeep, I'll take a few seconds to whine about garbage subtitles because they failed to translate one of the cutest lines he says:

What he's actually saying is: "Have I been speaking Telugu until now?" Get it? Telugu? *snort snort*

The first time I watched Shor I thought Sendhil didn't quite come through in terms of acting, but on the second watch I came to appreciate his understated style. Guess that's one of the dangers of mixing Western actors with Indian ones, their styles don't always match perfectly. But after adjusting my lens for the differences, I have to say he kind of rocks. Watch him try to speak Hindi and always end up blowing up in English. Watch his little smiles when he picks up on the innuendos and he learns to read between the lines. And then watch him be all badass! Enough said.

Oh come on! Don`t act like this was not done for precise purposes of screencapping!

I am convinced that the reason why the characters in Shor don't stay with you as much as the ones in 99 is precisely because they succeed so well at portraying real life people, the people you could meet every day and promptly forget, the people who only become memorable when something happens and they end up in the news or even worse, as statistics. Nobody is poorer than poor and nobody is richer than rich. Nobody stands out for extraordinary qualities or even for extreme villainy. It's not that they have no personality, because they do, it's just that in the end, they disappear in the crowd like you would expect them to with no major consequences for anyone. Every character in the film is just another building block of the maze that is the city of Mumbai, each trying to get ahead, each trying to make something of his life. The right way or the wrong way.

Don't watch Shor in the City expecting another 99. Don't watch it for a great uplifting moralizing story. Don't even watch it for a story that has its heart in the right place (the tag line of the soundtrack gives that one away: "Be Bad or Be Dead"). Watch it for the little moments of brilliance. Watch it for the rawness of the forces that run each character's life. Watch it for the fantastic direction. Watch it for the sincerity of the relationships. And for Saibo. Twice for Saibo.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara Review

Ay, mi vida, que has hecho?? What have you done to me, Zoya? How am I supposed to write a review for a movie that has left me so conflicted? And it's not the usual conflict where Dolce takes one side and Namak takes the other, because for this one they agree completely on everything that is bad and on everything that is good.

Namak: For example the ridiculous "seize the day, no regrets" philosophy?
Dolce: Well, on that one, I do kind of get it. People were not appreciative of Zoya's subtlety in the brilliant Luck by Chance, so perhaps she felt that something more in your face was needed. Judging by the reactions on twitter, we could say that gamble paid off.
Namak: Maybe, but that's only because the people who were "meh" about the movie to begin with (and there are unfortunately a lot of those) just went to see Harry Potter instead and will catch this one later if the word of mouth is good.
Dolce: You may be right about that, sure, but remember how many other works of art that advocate this type of chain-email philosophy have succeeded. A lot!
Namak: Point taken. People sure seem to like being told that it's ok, in fact it's recommended, to be a bohemian who has no job, no worries and no regrets.
Dolce: Except they only like to hear it, no one actually does it.
Namak: But that's just the point. It's a movie, it doesn't have to be realistic. As long as people will enjoy listening to that message, you're guaranteed a successful movie. Who cares if anyone actually learns something from it. It's like a chain-email: everyone will smile at it, promise themselves to get more out of life every day, forward it, and then go about their usual business.
Dolce: Are you saying Zoya's movie is like a chain-email?
Namak: No. Not at all. Just this part of the story.

We do all agree that this part of the message was quite heavy handed in the film, which is something I was not expecting from Zoya Akhtar, the woman who made us rethink everything we thought we knew about the film industry and the people in it with her first film. It's nice to have a free-spirited character like Laila, effortlessly played by Katrina Kaif, but to have a stuck-up materialistic dude like Arjun (Hrithik Roshan) turn around 180 degrees and embrace that philosophy in a week is a little much.

I mean, THIS is the guy we're talking about:

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara has confirmed the two things I said I was afraid of when I saw the first trailer: that Kalki's character will be a uni-dimensional controlling wife-to-be who will not let her husband out of her sight, and that it will fall for that silly stereotype that a trip to Europe can change someone's personality. Ugh! So there goes that. Out of the three stories, only Farhan's arc warrants a major shift in zindagi outlook after this trip.

Namak: And yet... I wasn't bored.
Dolce: Nope, not for a second.
Namak: Even when I was rolling my eyes.
Dolce: Which apart from those two things we didn't roll them all that much.
Namak: Oh yes we did: hello stereotypical slutty Spanish girl!
Dolce: Oh, right, yes, the chaste Laila doesn't even concede a kiss after 4 days together, while Nuria jumps into bed the first night.
Namak: Heh... it is after all, Farhan Akhtar's bed.
Dolce: Dude, I'm the fangirl here!
Namak: Pfff! So what? Does that mean I can't show my appreciation too?

Farhan Akhtar, it should be said loud and clear, owns this movie. It's not just that he's given the best lines, but he acts with such panache, such intelligence and such style that it's hard to resist him, even when Imran spends more than half of the film being a complete jerk. Then again, how does one not melt for Imran, jerk as he may be, when he's practically making love to a convertible car through the window of the dealership? Or when he's dancing to Senorita? No really: how?

Truth be told, it's really hard to say which one is the bigger jerk: Imran (Farhan Akhtar) or Arjun (Hrithik Roshan). And the subtlety that we have loved Zoya for in Luck By Chance shows here in not making either of them completely right or completely lovable. You always end up conflicted about which one of them should win the argument. And THAT is what I love Zoya for! The fact that the materialistic Arjun is also always the one who tries to solve conflicts, whether it's by talking to Kabir about his relationship or just motioning him to leave the room. The fact that Imran is a brainless joker by day and an insightful poet by night. These are the things that I appreciate from a good writer, these are the things that make a character last for me.

While on the topic of characters, the other reason why I can't rave enough about Zoya is that she basically took my group of friends and our conversations on late weekend nights and put them in a movie. There's a scene where Arjun is drunk and he goes on and on and on about how everything is written in our destiny, and I laughed wholeheartedly because I have lived that conversation so many times! Sure these guys are immature, sure they have issues, sure they say and do things that are hurtful, but you know, that's what people do. And there is no growing up or out of it, regardless of the age, some people will still play stupid pranks, and others will still be hurt by them. And no one will learn. That's life, that's our generation, that's just who we are. And if there are ladies and gentlemen out there who don't care to watch a movie about this type of people, I guess they're better off not watching this one.

Dolce: Except we're not controlling fiances.
Namak: Well, we're not. But that doesn't mean others aren't.
Dolce: Hm... Point. Still, Natasha (Kalki Koechlin) was by far the weakest character in terms of writing. She's not even given a chance to redeem herself, not a single one. She's painted black right from the beginning and doesn't shake the image of the witch until the last song of the film.
Namak: Ya, that's truly sad. I did not expect such a uni-dimensional character. Not in this film.

Right, moving along, I really need to get over that or my love for the Akhtar twins just might fade after this humongous faux-pas.

Other highlights then? The cinematography! Every single review I read so far has raved about it, so I won't repeat the praises, but really worth seeing this one in the theatre just for that! Stupendous looking film! Great use of sound too, not just visuals. That heartbeat that marked each of the risky sports was only one of the many moments of brilliance, but there were many.

Overall, after this one we can safely say that Zoya is one of the most talented storytellers in Bollywood right now. The way the stories unfold and the way the details are connected is another reason why I will not stop raving about ZNMD for a while. Even details that you think you know... turn out to be something else altogether and everything comes out just at the right time. The main reason why I was glued to my seat the whole time was not as much to see where the story was going (which is easy to guess on most counts), but to find out where the story was coming from. And this is where a talented director and storyteller really shines. Sure, she may have fallen into traps and cliches this time around, but even while doing so she never let your eyes wander away from the screen. At least not mine.

I haven't said much about Kabir's story (Abhay Deol). And well, that's because it's pretty much all about the relationship with his fiance, so the less I talk about that the better. He won my heart in the first half of the film by being the only sensible man between the other two "bwoys" and then hung me out to dry in the second.

What a perfect role for Abhay Deol! And as usual, he makes the most of it with subtlety and just the right amount of emotion.

Because in the end it does come down to the actors and what they make of the script for me. I would go watch this movie again just for that, to relive all the little moments between the guys, to see their faces light up or smirk in contempt, to see them piss each other off with wine and then make peace over shots, to see them trying hard not to laugh, and always failing. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is not a movie that has taught me anything about life. But it's a movie that has a lot of life in it. Real - sometimes cliche, sometimes surprising, but always entertaining - life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raj Kapoor and the Golden Age of Indian Cinema - Part 1

The IIFAs came and went from Toronto without any visible traces. Truth be told, we were not expecting people to start flocking to the theatres to watch Bollywood movies, and we were not expecting to see some major shift in people's opinions of the industry either. No. Not really. Any effect that this extravaganza will have will not be quantifiable, though who knows, maybe we'll see some changes in the audience mix at TIFF this year.

But one thing that IIFA did leave behind was an initiative of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF): Raj Kapoor and The Golden Age of Indian Cinema, a showcase meant to highlight the influence that the Kapoor family, whether as actors, directors or producers have had in Indian cinema. Granted, a couple of films have been added to the programme without really being connected to any of the Kapoors, but for the most part it's a Kapoor Khazana special! And what better time for it than during Kapoor Khazana, which, if you have forgotten, is a 2-month event hosted by All the links for posts so far can be found here.

Now I'm not a big fan of oldies, what with my severe case of melodrama allergy, so it's fair to ask: why am I even getting excited about a bunch of oldies being shown in a theatre? Well for starters because it's not just any theatre. This, my friends, is the house that TIFF built, commonly known as the Lightbox. It's not just a theatre, it's an experience in architectural revelry! So that definitely counts as a good reason to go.

But more importantly, how often does one get a chance, in a country other than India, to see a Mughal-e-Azam or a Shakespeare Wallah on the big screen? Even for movies I knew I wouldn't like (and my apologies to the people sitting close to me for constantly snorting and snickering during the overacted emotional scenes), I knew I could not pass on the experience of seeing them in the environment that they were made for: a theatre with a silver screen. And who knows, some might even appeal to me the second time around because it's a proven fact that the big screen makes everything better: the songs are better, the actors are prettier, the decor is more impressive, plus everything is... well... bigger. And lest we forget, Shashi Kapoor is definitely handsomer.

No really, so much handsomer on the big screen!
Now that everyone is clear on that last point, let me tell you about the movies I have seen so far. And a reminder that this goes on through July and half of August, so if you have any business in Toronto, don't forget to check it out.

:: Barsaat ::

Barsaat was one big revelation to me, and I may buy this movie just because of that. I had seen 2 or 3 Raj Kapoor movies before (on DVD) and well, I thought he was a good actor and all that but I was never bowled over and running back to the rental website to fill up my basket with more movies from him. I did love Teesri Kasam, I loved it, for sure, but I suspect it was more because of Waheeda Rehman than because of good old Raj. Well... Barsaat changed all that. I could not take my eyes off him. In fact, I was a little upset that there was so much screen time given to the other couple because honestly I just wanted to see Raj Kapoor and to hell with everything else. Yes, that was a huge shocker for me, and I will understand if no one can relate.

Barsaat is the story of two young men: Pran (Raj Kapoor) a poet / musician who believes anyone who loves with a true heart should be loved in return, and his philandering friend, Gopal (Prem Nath). As expected, Gopal only needs women as a plaything and rejects the idea of true love as the delirious invention of a poet's mind. Sure enough, there is a pure hearted girl in some village in the countryside, Neela (Nimmi) who is madly in love with Gopal and is convinced that he will come back to her. I confess, most of my eyerolls were dedicated to her, since she was by far the most drama-infused character in the story. Not that other characters don't suffer tragically as the movie progresses, but this poor girl spends all her time pining and forgetting to breathe, if I didn't find it so funny, I would have felt really bad for her.

A small sample in this song. which by the way, is the original I Hate Luv Storys title song!

Raj Kapoor is paired up with his legendary leading lady, Nargis. Now I confess I never quite got the "beauty" of Nargis, but I suppose that's not really important, what's important is that in this particular movie I could not get over her sniffling. I suppose it's a way of making the character cute and um... more country girl? But it made no sense to me. She is cute. And clueless. I guess in a modern film she'd be ditsy. But cute.

Anyway... The drama of the story is that Reshma finds out her father had fixed her marriage for fear of the traveler (Pran) turning out to be just another Bombay playboy. In the swirl of emotions following this conversation, her father tries to kill Reshma who is swimming across the river to get to Pran. As any respectable father would.

On the other far less interesting side of the story, Neela has damaged her lungs so much from all that pining and breath holding that she is about to die without Gopal. Just kidding. Well, not really. She is pretty much dying from pining, no other visible reason. Oh and she disappears in the second half almost until the end.

So why would I put Barsaat in my basket as soon as I got home that day? Well for one because I got the length of the movie wrong and had plans for immediately after so I had to leave at intermission. But really that's not it. The real reason was this is the first (and so far only) movie where I found Raj Kapoor unbelievably attractive. He's cute and adorable and such a joy to watch that I couldn't let this movie go into oblivion like the rest of them. The songs of course, were the second reason, and the art direction, a close third.

I dare anyone to make a shot as dramatic as this one in colour!
Gosh, almost like a Picasso painting!
If you can handle your melodrama better than me (which I suspect most people can), this might be a good one to catch for a different taste of Raj Kapoor when he actually smiles and is playful rather than tormented or silly.

Yes, I admit, this was my favourite scene!
Well, at least in the first half he looks happy. Also, watch it if you like your Waves of the Danube, it gets a LOT of ear time!

All that said, if I see one more woman throwing herself at the feet of one more man, I may just scream right in the middle of the theatre! Oh well... At least Barsaat had this little moment to make up for it.

:: Shakespeare Wallah ::

Now this is a movie I had been searching for for at least 2 years. I'm not very sure why I was searching for it, but I was damn certain I would love it. So the skies just opened up and a choir of putti started singing when my Canada Day weekend plans fell through and I found myself in the city with nothing but time between me and Shakespeare Wallah. Did it meet all my expectations? Was it worth spending a long weekend in the city for it? Yes and YES!

Sanju (Shashi Kapoor) is a handsome playboy from Bombay, who meets and woos an English actress, Lizzie, traveling with her family, staging Shakespeare plays across the country. Meanwhile he has a long standing relationship with a local film actress, Manjula. Shashi plays both heroines with such devilish charm that for a while I could not tell for sure if he was even involved with the film actress. I guess I'd be a sucker for his sweet words if I were the English girl, who in fact, turns out to be much smarter and much stronger than we initially give her credit for. I'm not surprised this movie needed a white actress because no proper Hindustani maiden would have been accepted in that role. Well, not unless she killed herself, died or was otherwise prevented from leading a decent life at the end of the film. Also, I can't think of one who would have done justice to the role either.

A short but sweet movie, Shakespeare Wallah talks among other things about the nadir of British influenced culture, pitching Shakespeare against Bollywood films. But the main theme of the film is change. The times were changing, people's lives were changing, societal norms were changing, and all these changes are subtly captured by a family who is neither from here nor from there, a family of British actors that have been in India for so long that they call it home, but they still can't let go completely of their past on another continent. The head of the family, Mr. Buckingham (Geoffrey Kendall) is the one we see most often voicing his concerns about this brave and young new world taking over, while his wife is usually the sounding board that reflects everything back after straining it through the concern for her daughter (whom she wants to send to England) and mixing it with a healthy dose of optimism.

Shakespeare Wallah is a fascinating watch as a social fresco, but that implies of course, that one can take their eyes off the mesmerizing Shashi Kapoor. Not easy, let me tell you, not easy. Nonetheless, if you do manage, you will find a strong female character that is willing to give up anything for love but will not be weighed down by its absence. Needless to say she was my favourite part of the film. The parents, struggling to keep their ideals alive while their post-colonial world is crumbling around them, were another highlight. But the most important highlight for me was the lack of weepy melodrama and weak characters. Everyone in this movie knows what they want and even in situations where they are helpless, there is no majboori-ness in sight.

One of the best movies I have seen lately, and definitely my favourite oldie so far.

:: Aag ::

Yes, it is dubbed Aaaaaaaag for a reason! And that reason is you will want to scream at the screen at least every ten minutes. Unless you're in a theatre full of people where you must limit your reactions to giggles, eye-rolls and frequent washroom and Twitter breaks.

No, that wasn't me I swear!

Ok... it was me.

This movie is so over the top in its emotions, that Greek tragedy as a genre pales in comparison. Never before has choosing a career been such a life and death issue. And never before has a man been so obstinately determined to find a muse and fulfil his childhood dream as Kewal is (Raj Kapoor). One thing this movie would never run out of is pathos.

I mean just look at the poster!
Also, apparently, they will never run out of Nimmis, there's a new one at every corner.

Jokes aside (though you can tell that was pretty much a summary of the experience the person next to me had while trying to watch the movie), there is a very interesting theme that Aag brings up, and with a better treatment this theme could have turned the film into a favourite of mine. We're not just seeing the misunderstood artist, or the Galatea who cannot live up to the expectations of her Pygmalion, or the artist's search for truth. We're seeing a clash between different visions on art and its meaning.

We don't get to debate whether physical beauty is more powerful than the beauty of one's soul, instead we are asked to reflect on the true origin of art: is it one with Truth or is it one with Beauty? As Kewal keeps searching for that fountain of truth inside Nimmi's soul, we realize that we cannot be sure how much truth there is inside his own soul, and whether or not it's his own truth that he hopes to uncover inside her. His constant search for the muse of his childhood and his impotence in fulfilling his only dream present him as an incomplete artist, one who perhaps will never find his own soul and his true inspiration. Or if he does, will it be too late? Is burning the outer shell and bearing one's soul really the only way to be a complete artist? Or is the need for compromise and empathy a sine qua non condition for finding your truth in this imperfect world? The last scene will give us a hint.

Interestingly the one accomplished artist of the film is ridiculed by Kewal, however, he is the one who empowers the young man to fulfil his dream of putting a play on stage. He is after all the only one to come out victorious. Perhaps a little moment of reflection on the always underappreciated patrons of arts? Or a bone thrown to the dogs?

With a somewhat predictable and yet somewhat open ending, the film doesn't answer any of these questions. I didn't want it to either. But I did want to be able to reflect upon the philosophy behind it without cringing and laughing at the memory of Nargis, hand to forehead, a vision of artificial tragedy that will probably haunt me until the end of my days.

Nonetheless, my $12 were once again well spent on seeing a very young and very talented Shashi Kapoor playing the role of young Kewal, and also by the exquisite art direction. When they say they don't make them like they used to, Aag is a good example, for better AND worse.

:: Mughal-e-Azam ::

What a difference the big screen makes! I didn't care much for Mughal-e-Azam when I rented the colourized version and watched it, except for the fabulous songs. But what I didn't know then was that you need a big screen to realize the sheer opulence of this movie, to see just how epic every single frame in it is. And epic is a word I used a lot after this screening and will probably always use going forward whenever Mughal-e-Azam is discussed.

It's not only the movie that needed the big screen, the legendary Madhubala also needed it to prove to me why so many consider her beauty breathtaking. I didn't think much of her before, but she really is beautiful beyond words on the big screen, the lady was made for black and white and for the silver screen, there is no doubt in my mind about that now.

Mughal-e-Azam in short, is the story of Akbar the Great's heir falling in love with a court dancer. Akbar opposes, naturally, which only strengthens the youngsters' resolve to see their love triumph. A classic conflict between the old order and the new, between love and duty, between parents and lovers, between mind and heart. And if you think this plot doesn't warrant a 3.5 hour extravaganza, watch this one to be proved wrong.

When I decided to go see this at the Lightbox I said I was only going for the songs. And while I came out of it with so many other magnificent moments to remember, I have to say the fact that I saw Teri Mehfil Mein on the big screen is still, by far, the highlight of my entire Lightbox experience (sorry Shashi, you're second). Everything about this song from the lyrics to the vocals to the music to the camerawork to the expressions of the singers is sheer perfection. I have yet to see another that challenges its status in my heart.
I can't find a video to embed in black and white so follow the link above, or watch below in colour. 

Apart from the opulence of the visuals in general, there are little moments of brilliant camerawork that will stay with you even when the glitter of the palace halls has worn out: Madhubala's face lit by a single candle, the twinkle in her eyes that will soon become a tear while another is already slithering its way down her cheek, these are the moments that celebrate black and white films in a way that colour can only aspire to.

Not even the plot bothered me as much as the first time, proof that either the big screen, or the black and white, or a second viewing does improve this one (not sure which of the three, could be all of them). It's still over the top like nothing else, but somewhere in the middle of the amazing songs and in between gasps at the brilliant use of lighting, I even forgot to snicker a few times. What an experience this movie is. No wonder it was unsurpassed for years and years, it's sheer awe to watch it in all its glory.

And now what you ask? Now I have commitments that prevent me from catching a lot of other gems that are scheduled during this event, but I do have plans to see at least another 3, so look out for Part 2 of this post in August. Unless they're all really really bad, in which case... well, I'll spare everyone the eyerolls.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Delhi Belly Review/ Rave/ Rant/ Rumination

Delhi Belly is a movie about 3 roommates who end up at the mercy of the local goonda when a shipment of diamonds gets mixed up for a stool sample. With a little help from Lady Bad Luck, a lot of madness and a race against time ensue. With a plot as thin as this, it can be crazy fun, or you can be bored silly. But you have to make it to the theatre first in order to know the answer. So the first question is: how do you make people interested in a plot like this to begin with?

Here's the thing with marketing: unless it's for a product that is ridiculously costly and therefore cognitive dissonance kicks in to justify why you made the expense (cough Apple cough), marketing does not work beyond the true value of the product. At least that's what I like to believe. So marketing a film like Delhi Belly aggressively, which God knows is exactly what we have seen for the past couple of months, can only guarantee that a large amount of arses will be in those theatre seats. Nothing beyond that. It's the quality of the movie during the next 90 minutes that will bring those same arses back, or their friends' arses. Marketing won't do that. A bad film is a bad film is a bad film and no amount of buzz and promos will turn it into a good one. Look at Tees Maar Khan!... Yeah. I rest my case.

On the other hand, lack of good marketing can, and usually does, lead to a good product not succeeding because no one knows about it. And I have way too many film examples for that, I'm sure everyone does.

The fact is Aamir Khan Productions has long been known to have one of the best marketing departments in Bollywood, if not the best. And I know better than to congratulate Aamir Khan for it because he may be one of the brains, but this takes the efforts of a whole team and I think they all deserve equal praise for it. Let me make it clear that I count as marketing everything from various publicity stunts such as "looking for an item girl" for an item number that had already been shot long ago, to promos filled with swearwords, and even to the infamous DK Bose song. It's all marketing, and it's all aimed at getting those arses in those seats.

But much like "the body", the big marketing point of the Ghajini campaign, "the toilet humour" is given way more space in the promotional material (and certainly in reviews) than it actually has in the movie. And in both cases I can only add THANKFULLY at the end of that statement. Maybe because I had read plenty of spoilers about it but I knew every single gross moment before I even walked into the theatre, which helped a lot for me since I am quite squeamish about toilet humour. So you know, I do recommend you do the same if you're anything like me. Though in all fairness I have seen so much worse in more "harmless" Hollywood "comedies", so looking away during a couple of key moments was all it took.

On the other hand, hard language and sex humour don't bother me at all, so I needed no warnings for those, even though there have been many reviews outraged by them. There are two moments of situational comedy that are related to sex, and while I didn't laugh at them, I also didn't find them offensive in any way. Not to offend anyone but I think you'd have to be pretty narrow minded (and if you're a guy I pity your girlfriend) to not find those two situations relatable, even if the aftermath may have never actually happened to you. That's all I have to say about that, everyone has their own opinion I'm sure, and I have no intention of changing anyone's.

All in all, I wanted to take the first half of my Delhi Belly review to congratulate the people who made this marketing campaign happen because it's been a brilliant roller coaster ride. I may not have agreed with parts of it, and I'm sure everyone had their own eye-rolling moments before the movie opened, but at the end of the day this team did what it set out to do: get those box office wickets ringing. Past that, it's the job of the director, the actors, the script-writer and rest of the film crew to live up to the buzz.

So the second half of my review is here to tell you that yes, they did just that. Beyond the upset stomach sound bites and the insalubrious visuals (have I ever mentioned I HATE cockroaches, and especially close-ups of them??), there is a very funny script by Akshat Verma that makes the trip to the theatre worth one's while. I wish I had managed to remember all the one-liners and all the creative cusses (right now I can only recall a certain pair of earrings threatening to be made out of someone's... well, just figure out what's round and comes in pairs on the male body), but that's fine, I plan to go back to the theatre to revisit them. There are no long monologues, there are no scenes of teary explanations, in fact I doubt any of the lines took longer than 2 rows to get written; this script is snappy, fast and to the point. It works because of that. No wait, not just because of that.

For a script as sharp as this one, you need actors with instinctive comedic timing, it's not something you can just edit. Thankfully, Imran Khan, Vir Das, Kunal Roy Kapoor, Vijay Raaz and Poorna Jagannathan have all got it. I knew Vijay Raaz was a hoot from his Monsoon Wedding days, and I had seen glimpses of Imran and Vir's natural talent for comedy in I Hate Love Stories and Badmaash Company respectively, but Poorna was a revelation for me. She seemed so comfortable in the comedy scenes (and not to mention that mad chemistry with Imran) that I almost cried when I read that she's an LA based actress because I really want her back to stay in Bollywood.

Actually, comfortable is the key word for the whole cast: everyone seemed to have been born in their role, from the over-eager parents, to the idiotic gangsters, to the mousy landlord, to the kathak teachers.

Aiming for that comfort is the greatest gamble a film like this takes: one contrived performance, one over the top reaction, one line out of place and you have ruined the mad pace of a whole sequence. But hard as I try, I can't remember that happening at any point. Ok, maybe the two old white people, but they're only in the movie for 5 seconds.

The other reason why I found this film so engaging and so hilarious is there's a lot happening visually. Half of what happens has no words attached and none are needed. Facial expressions (and thankfully all these actors are great with their faces even when hidden by heavy layers of fabric, bruises or hair), chain reactions, little ironies of life (the doll going back onto the shelf of heirlooms being one of my favourites), all priceless moments that add up to a sumptuous visual treat. Abhinay Deo has really outdone himself on the direction in this one.

The music by Ram Sampath, it should also be said, is well suited for the film, even if to my great disappointment the picturization of Nakkaddwaley Disco, Udhaarwaley Khisko was not featured anywhere, and even the song was only featured in sound bites.

Sure, I Hate You (Like I Love You), in brackets, made up for that loss in parts, but I am still a little bitter about it. Most of the songs didn't have a full-on picturization, but they wouldn't have fit with the story either, so that was a good decision. It's one of those movies.

Delhi Belly is not ground-breaking, though I understand that lip service must be paid in a world where news of Akshay Kumar filming in Antarctica for Houseful 2 is presented as "never before done in Indian cinema". If there is anything about Delhi Belly that truly has earned this quantifier it's the marketing campaign.

In terms of the topics approached in the film, I would not say that they are intrinsically ground-breaking, however, the ease with which the movie flows through them is something I have never seen before. It's not that we haven't seen swearwords in a movie before, and hardcore ones at that, but we hardly ever see them so seamlessly integrated in everyone's speech (take No One Killed Jessica as an example of how *not* to do it). It's not that we haven't seen erection bumps or talk about lesbians before in Indian films, but I'd be hard pressed to find a movie where it's been done so casually, with such a matter-of-fact attitude. When other films are still struggling with kissing, it is actually pretty impressive to see a movie that treats adult content maturely. It may sound like an oxymoron, because sex humour as well as toilet humour are both considered juvenile (even by me most of the times), but that's I suppose exactly where this movie exceeds all expectations, in making the statement that: it's not such a big deal!

I decided at the beginning of this review to not go all fangirly about Imran Khan and how this movie has only reinforced my adoration for him (and trust me it's really hard to stick to that resolution), so I will end with a note on the infamous item number by none other than Aamir Khan. If Shah Rukh has always wanted to do a superhero movie, we can safely say that this item number is one of those things that Aamir Khan has always secretly wanted to do. I can't even recall the last time I saw someone having so much ridiculous fun! I was tempted to cover my eyes a few times while watching "I Hate You (Like I Love You)" not because it was ridiculous (which of course it was), but because I almost felt like I was invading Aamir Khan's privacy. He was enjoying this number so much it really seemed like it should be illegal, or at the very least behind closed doors.

Of course it would be in really bad taste to end this with a cheese rating, as much as I miss doing those, so I'll skip that and just say: ignore the shit, throw all your expectations out the window, and just see the movie. You'll probably find it worth your while. I didn't think I would myself, but here I am writing a rave review about it. Go figure!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Bollywood Hollywood and Beyond

Whew... A bit of a delay with this post, and probably not much relevant anymore but since I wrote half of it, well maybe it will still hold some meaning for posterity: some of my thoughts about the "Bollywood, Hollywood and Beyond" panel that kick-started IIFA week in Toronto recently. The guests were (in alphabetical order): Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Kabir Bedi, Lisa Ray, Ajay Virmani.

The panel was paired up with the Cinema Showcards Exhibition displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum through October, an exhibition that made me gasp in awe more than once (Whoa! They glued the photograph of the actress on the poster and then painted accents over it?? This is amazing!).

But back to the panel. The five speakers talked about their individual experiences with Bollywood and how movies are made there while trying to compare it to the best of their knowledge with other film industries. Kabir Bedi seemed the most knnowledgeable about Hollywood, while of course Javed and Shabana talked mostly about Bollywood. I'd put both Lisa Ray and Ajay Virmani in the "beyond" category as their experience lies mostly in Canadian films (even if filmed in India).

A lot of the talk as expected was about how Bollywood is changing and has been changing lately, be it in controversial areas such as copyright issues, or script writing (Kabir Bedi expressed his longing for writers like Javed Akhtar from the good old days), or simply in topics chosen for film making these days. Javed Akhtar was of course a gentleman and never once mentioned his two brilliant offsprings, Zoya and Farhan Akhtar, who are undoubtedly making their script-writing father proud, but sometimes I wanted to jump up and mention them, because while it's true that there are many inane scripts today in Bollywood, it's also true that there are some really good writers out there as well. So I will politely disagree with Kabir Bedi's lamentation that "they don't make them like they used to".

Also on the topic of the changes in Bollywood, Shabana made a fair point about seeing more and more working women in movies nowadays and congratulated Band Baaja Baaraat for their take on this underrepresented reality in today's Indian society. Independent career women have indeed been one of the most interesting developments in Indian films lately. She also spoke beautifully later on about female characters becoming more self-asserted and ideologies like "Main Chup Rahungi" (I will remain quiet) being left far behind. Coming from someone who has always been praised and idolized for her unconventional powerful women roles, this is indeed a great compliment to today's Bollywood.

Javed Akhtar in turn, being the joker that he usually is, counter-argued that the hero never does anything in Bollywood movies either. He had the audience laughing, of course, but I think the point made its way through regardless.

But the most beautiful thing that Shabana said in regards to parallel cinema and Bollywood was that parallel cinema is not gone, but rather it manifests itself in mainstream Bollywood which is something she had always felt was the right way to go about it. I personally salute this statement because it's a very well expressed reflection of my own thoughts on the Bollywood of the new Millenium.

Kabir Bedi then tried to bring the two main topics together and he spoke at length about the philosophy of film making in Bollywood versus Hollywood. Hollywood, in his opinion, does movies as a business or to win Oscars (which is also ultimately about money), so the bottom line is very important and this he tied into the pre-production work that gets done. Bollywood on the other hand is more casual: pre production goes at the same time as production. Indian producers, he said, are the most courageous in the world, because they put their money into something that is often not clearly defined and certainly not guaranteed to succeed.

Kabir Bedi also made an interesting point about Indians not being great planners, but in turn being fantastic improvisers. Knowing a thing or two about event planning myself, I couldn't help but snort at this comment that was meant to praise the creativity of Indian film crews because in my humble opinion there is hardly ever need for improvisation if things are planned right. Moreover, creative patch-work solutions are wonderful to get one out of a sticky unexpected situation, but they should not be the norm, they should stay the exception. So while I applaud along with Kabir Bedi the resourcefulness of a crew who can make an elephant materialize on the sets with only a day's notice, I continue to have more respect for the crew who, knowing months in advance from the script that an elephant will be needed, does all the work ahead of time to make sure the special guest will be looked after and delivered on time.

Of course, these are all generalizations, and surely not all film makers in India do everything last minute, nor are Hollywood film crews always prepared for everything, but when Kabir Bedi said "we are not planners but we are great improvisers" something in that rang very true and not in a good way.

I've decided to gloss over the part of Bedi's speech regarding film making in Europe because he didn't seem to have any idea what he was talking about when his whole argument was based on the statement that "Europe is divided by language". That may be so (though not sure exactly how that is different from India as a whole), but Europe also has a highly productive dubbing industry, which, paired up with NOT being allergic to subtitles ensures that people can watch movies from any part of the continent without being in any way held back by the fact that the movie was shot in a language they don't understand. At any rate, the point he was making his way towards when he brought Europe into the discussion was that Indian film makers should pay more attention to that market rather than focusing on North America, which is definitely something I am in favour of.

Last but not least, Ajay Virmani shared with the audience the trailer for Breakaway, a film that his son wrote and stars in. He has confidence that this is the type of film that both Canadian and Indian audiences can connect with. I suppose we'll see about that, but it certainly didn't seem too bad. The film is about a first generation Indo-Canadian trying to make it into the professional hockey world, a sport whiter even than tennis. Some of the lines fell flat for most of the audience, but a couple of them had everyone laughing, notably a point that one of the players on the team makes about the opposite team: "They're bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. And they're WHITE!" If you're expecting this movie to be politically correct, think again! But I for one am perfectly fine with that as long as it's funny.

By the way, Russell Peters and Anupam Kher are in it. And apparently so is Akshaye Kumar, hopefully not for long. Sadly the trailer is nowhere to be found on youtube yet, so here's hoping it will surface soon!

Last but not least, I was not impressed with Lisa Ray beyond her breathtaking good looks, as she was talking about belonging to neither Hollywood (guessing she meant Hollywood North by that because to my knowledge she hasn't actually acted in Hollywood) nor Bollywood. Probably why she couldn't make any good points about either of them, but that's ok because she did leave me with a great quote that I will probably use a lot going forward: "For every statement you can make about Bollywood, the opposite is also perfectly true." And that's why I for one love it!

Isn't she a doll though? Just beautiful!