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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Barfi! is a Delicious Fairytale

The last time Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, two of my favourite actors, were in a movie together I was supremely let down. While they both looked exquisite, the story of Anjaana Anjaani turned out to be disappointing to say the least. Barfi! is the exact opposite: their looks are entirely unappealing (lose the mouche, Ranbir, I beg you!) but the story is a fantastic dream! The type of modern fairy-tale that we see so little of even in World Cinema, let alone coming out of India.

The trailer leads you to believe that Barfi! is the love story of a deaf-mute manic-pixie-dream-boy (as one of my Twitter friends hilariously calls Ranbir) and the gorgeous out-of-towner Shruti (played by long-time favourite from South-Indian movies Ileana D'Cruz). With a dash of tear-jerking moments provided by what seems to be the autistic sister (or close friend).

None of that is true. Barfi/Murphy is not a manic pixie dream boy, in fact he is very much his own character even though his influence on Ileana's character could match a loose definition of MPDG/B. Also, the film is not a love story. Or better said, it's not ONE love story. Add to that the very well-played mystery factor (yes, it plays a bit like a whodunit too!) and a dash of comedy and you're closer to what Barfi really looks like. I was extremely pleased with the way the film was put together overall, with the flashbacks taking their time to reveal the story and with different characters telling the story at different times. Narration is hard enough to handle even from the point of view of one character, let alone several, so I was truly impressed with the outcome.

The other reason why Barfi! blew me away visually, and this may also be my TIFF hangover, was how well they used close-ups and details. Whether it was zooming in so close that I could trace the liner on Ileana's eye-lids with my finger, or making old Barfi's white hair stand on end in a giant mess, everything about these characters felt so close to you and endearing. But, and this is the impressive part, never overbearing. (Of course, they could still improve on the wigs, but heh... nobody's perfect.)

Speaking of Ileana, one of the reasons why I'll be very happy to see Barfi! succeed is because it will mean seeing more of Ileana D'Cruz in Bollywood. Not that I don't love her in the South (where they make full use of her exquisite body shape, unlike Barfi!), but she deserves more than just being arm-candy for the hero.

I must admit that on occasion I can be very easily amused by old-school movie gags like people walking into lamp-posts or pies thrown in someone's face. But it can also get old for me just as easily. Barfi! uses a lot of physicality for its comedy, but considering a lot of it had to do with Saurabh Shukla rolling his eyes and making faces as the police officer always on Barfi's tail, I didn't mind it too much. I would have found Barfi unbearable if the antics had been only on Ranbir's side, but with an actor as entertaining and hilarious as Saurabh Shukla, he was well balanced (and dare I say, out-goofed!).

When a movie like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is your benchmark for characters with mental illness, it's really hard to not be apprehensive about other actors and actresses attempting these roles. Because nothing can top that movie for me. So despite my well-documented love for Priyanka, I was afraid. I was very afraid. At the same time I have very little real life experience with this type of issue, so that usually works in my favour when I watch movies because I tend to be forgiving if everything seems reasonably realistic. As it turns out, it was a good place to watch Barfi! from. Priyanka was adorable and so hug-able and with the exception of a couple of over the top moments she got it as right as one could hope for.

It's not just that she's not relying on her looks to stun us, but apart from Saat Khoon Maaf I've never seen Priyanka use her body, her eyes and even her hands so much to develop a character. My favourite scenes would be too spoilery for this review, but let's just say she had me at the headbutt.

I was also afraid of Ranbir overdoing his Charlu Chaplin act, which in this fan's opinion has been done to death and I was ready to never see him goof around like that ever again. Go figure, even that turned out to be an unfounded fear. It's not that he doesn't abuse it, but it didn't bother me one bit because there were plenty of serious moments to make up for it. His character has far more depth to it than the trailers had us believe and mercifully he's not running around banging his head against a wall the entire movie. His permanent smile is not, as I had thought, just an expression of permanent optimism, but also at times a mask behind which he can hide when the words he cannot speak fail him.

I think the moral of the story here may end up being that I need to stop watching trailers and base my expectations on them, huh?

Because despite all these expectations that the trailers built (for better or worse), Barfi! is not a goofy story. It may be a fairy-tale, which means its characters seem to live in this world that is conveniently supportive, but it's one well-wrapped in a healthy lesson about unrestrained love and loyalty. About settling or moving on. And about recognizing that you found what you were looking for even in the strangest places.

Barfi! has a simple message: companionship and having fun with each other are the key ingredients to making a relationship last, not teenage crushes. And oh, how I love a movie that shows love is not a one-time deal! Few Indian films subscribe to this philosophy and you all know it's one of my biggest pet peeves with Indian cinema, Bollywood and elsewhere. So with that as the cherry on an already sweet and delicious cake, what more can I ask for?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review

Sometimes this is the problem with TIFF: you navigate so many movies in so little time that you don't have the luxury of getting "in the right mood" for each film. I saw The Reluctant Fundamentalist after English Vinglish and before Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2. And its subtlety was maybe too much for me. I came out of it disappointed that it lacked the punch I was expecting. Perhaps it really did lack teeth (and reading excerpts from the book now, I am tempted to say that it did), or perhaps I failed to dial in on the right frequency. Or maybe I was too distracted by my blinding crush on Riz Ahmed (seriously! those EYES!!) to take note of other aspects of the film. Anything's possible.

Gawd!!! Ahem... I rest my case!
This is the story of a Pakistani/Punjabi young man, Changez, who goes to the US to study and work. After graduation he gets hired into a valuation firm where he quickly rises up the ranks through his gift for thinking outside the box and through his ruthless approach to optimizing profit for companies, oftentimes at the expense of their workers. He's a confident, even cocky young man who wants... everything. Then of course 9/11 hits. And between episodes of racial profiling and pressure from his family (and from other people he meets) to choose a side, he ends up moving back to Pakistan where he becomes a teacher at the University of Lahore. But his life is far from peaceful even here as he continues to be under suspicion of terrorist ties, so when an American professor gets kidnapped in Lahore, his allegiances have to be tested once again.

I won't spend too much time on the present-day part of the story because as gorgeous as the opening scene is - the music from a qawwali concert attended by the Khan family (Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play Changez's parents) playing over images of the American professor getting roughed up and taken away in a van - it's a pretty bland ride from here. The dialogues between Changez Khan and his interviewer Bobby (Liev Schreiber) sound like every other Hollywood movie script, so while the action keeps you engaged, there's not much to be learned from this.

The real story is told in flashbacks by a bearded Changez and it takes us through his love affair with New York and the American Dream, and then through his disenchantment with the land of the free in the paranoid post-9/11 world. The first part of the story is extremely well told: in several short but highly effective scenes we learn about the growing distance between Changez and the culture of his parents, we get to know him as a caustic, sometimes arrogant but always charming young man, we see him winning over his colleagues and superiors, and we root for his budding romance with Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson who should henceforth forget that any colour other than blonde even exists).

And through all this, while we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, we're perfectly in sync with this complex character. We laugh at Changez's self-deprecating dry humour even though we know it will turn sour later on. We rejoice with him when he gets promoted even though we know he'll only fall harder. We cheer for him when he tells Erica "All these pictures of me? Come on, you must have a little crush on me." even though we know that relationship can't end well. But then 9/11 happens. And this strong character starts closing up and we lose that connection we thought we had with him.

This was, for me, the biggest flaw of the film. There's an episode where Changez talks about how he felt as he was watching the planes hit the towers on 9/11 and he says (quoting from memory) "Before I got to think about the loss of human lives and about what this meant, for a few brief moments I was in awe... at the audacity of this act. At the brilliance of it." It's a shocking statement, and it holds a promise of a film that will pull no punches. But unfortunately, this is the only moment of its kind. The rest of his inner struggle seems to happen behind closed doors and we never get more insight into his changes of heart. Yes, we witness him being a victim of racial profiling, yes, we see him question his line of work in front of a situation that is too close to home for comfort and yes, we see how his skin colour becomes visible to those close to him, but I for one was in the dark about how this strong, determined, ambitious man ended up doing a complete u-turn. Maybe I wouldn't need an explanation if I was an NRI myself, and maybe this movie is made for NRIs, but as someone who wasn't even on the continent when 9/11 happened, I couldn't relate to him without some guidance and there was none.

But that said, maybe it was just me. Maybe others will watch and totally get it.

And I do highly recommend watching it, if not for Riz Ahmed (in case you missed all my gushing so far, he's fabulous!), then for Mira Nair's flawless direction (what else is new?) and for the excellent music. Given that this soundtrack has been impossible to find, I wasn't even aware that I would be treated to two Atif Aslam songs, so imagine my giddiness when all of a sudden I recognized his voice. Not only that, but one of the songs is a collaboration with Peter Gabriel, who wrote the music for the Urdu poem sung by Atif. I wish I could find even a snippet of it on youtube, I know it would sell the movie single-handedly.

Speaking of Pakistani artists, another little moment of unexpected joy was provided by Mira's nod to a film I absolutely loved last year: Shoaib Mansoor's Bol. In one of the scenes setting up the stage in Lahore, a couple (can't remember if it was Shabana and Om or just a random couple) comes out from a screening of Bol and comments on the virtues of the film. You can't imagine how that made my day!

Last but not least, for a film about racial tensions post 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist also packs a surprising amount of humour, and some of the extra-dry one-liners had the entire audience (and this screened to a full house at TIFF) in stitches. A special mention here to Nelsan Ellis who gets some of the most hilarious wisecracks as an American of (I assume) Jamaican origins. 

So with that in mind, I take your leave now to go and hunt down the book which I am hoping will give me more of those one-liners along with a better insight into the fascinating Changez Khan. I may need to keep a picture of Riz Ahmed open while reading it though...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

English Vinglish Review

Lately I've been wondering if Bollywood is losing its appeal for me, I've been getting into other things, haven't loved too many flicks, and even when watching Indian films I was mostly interested in the artsy stuff than the big films. For a while I thought it was Bollywood going through a slump. Then I thought maybe it's me, maybe this hobby had just run its course. But English Vinglish, the story of a woman whose confidence suffers because she can't speak English like the rest of her family can, reminded me why I fell in love with Bollywood back in the day. It reminded me of the feeling of watching a movie and not caring if it's simple or complex, or if it has a certain star, or if it's perfectly edited, or even if I agree with the philosophy of it. It reminded me of those times when I used to watch Bollywood movies just for the magic of seeing a different world materialize in front of my eyes.

Strange how that is because English Vinglish is not a particularly novel story, nor does it have the kind of strong heroine that I usually like to see. In fact I was heard to whisper-scream at poor Shashi (Sridevi's character): "Get a sense of humour already!!". But something about the way the story unfolded made me happy to just be in this movie. Maybe it was the ladoos that made everything sweeter because man oh man are they everywhere in this film! The trailer alone mentions them about 50 times! (And thank God the lovely people at TIFF gave us some after because otherwise I'd probably be in Little India right now, at 3 am, looking for them.)

Having never seen a full Sridevi movie before I didn't really know what to expect from her. But the moment she did a series of Michael Jackson moves in the beginning of the movie she had me eating out of her hand. And even though her wimpy character infuriated me in the beginning I was still happy to cheer for her to become a stronger woman as the movie progressed. Being a big believer in the idea that respect is earned, not implied, I did have a bone to pick with Shashi in the first half of the movie which plays like a less dramatic version of the Seeta story in Seeta aur Geeta. The type of story that irritates me by default. But unlike with Seeta and Geeta I can sincerely appreciate a character who finds the strength to change their condition within themselves, without waiting for a Geeta to come flying down from heaven, so when Shashi decided to go take English lessons and picked up the phone, I was fully on board with this character.

Also, how badass is Shashi's sister? She only had one important line in the whole movie but how fabulous was it that at the core of the story it's not some teenage crush that motivates Shashi to change, but the respect she has for her sister! I, for one, really appreciated this detail, fleeting as it was. Yay for sister power!
Apart from Sridevi, who was simply lovely, Adil Hussain also puts in a wonderful performance as the distant husband. I must commend him for the way he played Satish because it would have been very easy for that character to come across as the villain, but he retains enough warmth in his interactions with Shashi that I kept finding excuses for his behaviour even when, maybe, he didn't deserve it. And I know most people will disagree with this because I've seen this character get labelled as a class A jerk more than once so far. I may be a jerk myself but I found some of his jokes quite funny and harmless, certainly not as offensive as they were made out to be by Shashi's dramatic reactions. Really girl, if you're offended, speak up, slap him, do something about it, don't just sit there and suffer in silence. But I've already addressed this earlier so I won't bore you again with it.

English Vinglish, by the way, is one of those rare Hindi films where you end up caring about all those secondary characters too because they feel like real people. I've seen those people in my own Business English classes, so it was nice to meet them again in a movie. Ironically enough (and a first for me), the non-desi characters felt more fleshed out than some of the desi ones. At least in the English class. And I don't just mean Mehdi Nebbou, who got a heart flutter even out of me when he started speaking in French in one of the scenes towards the end (you'll *know* which one it is but hint: it's over the phone, and yes, it's so much dreamier if you understand French). Hell, you could have swept me onto a dustpan and carried me out of the theatre after that scene, that's how perfect he was. And I don't even like that language. Though, to be fair he did get some glorious lines throughout, and his oh-so-snob attitude towards fries had me smiling from ear to ear, which let's think about it for a second: how often is a non-desi character so well written in a Hindi film that you like them right away? Sadly, not often at all. (Oh but yes, it helps that he's so handsome too.)

Speaking of non-desi characters, I was ready to cringe about the gay English teacher. I mean I was ready to just close my eyes and go lalalalala every time he spoke to avoid throwing shoes at the screen because, well, Indian movies are not exactly known for sensitive portrayals of such minorities. And again, what a surprise. Yes, he was over the top at times (as are, in fact, most of my real life gay friends), but for the most part Cory Hibbs hit all the right notes! Not only did he stay away from those done-to-death mannerisms such as the limp hand, the lisp and addressing everyone with "honey", but the film treats him as normal person, not as a curiosity or as an alien (ok, his clothes were kind of crazy but hey I know straight men who dress worse than that!). And I know the entire audience was with me on this one because there was unanimous clapping when the point was made in one of the scenes in the film. I love Toronto!

Of course Sridevi got the biggest cheers throughout the film, it goes without saying, and well deserved, but from me the biggest cheer goes to the writer-director, Gauri Shinde, who manages to create a story that, as the kids say these days, keeps it real from beginning to end. So real in fact that I was reminded of my first trip to North America and how daunting and complicated everything seemed: from the push-bars on the buses to the streets in downtown (and Toronto is also a grid-city, just like New York, you'd think it's the easiest thing in the world), to the drinks menus in restaurants and the neverending streets in the suburbias. All these little details, all these little fears, all these little victories, Gauri Shinde captures them in the movie and plays them for laughs without shoving them in your face.

Image courtesy of
And we did laugh a lot throughout the movie. And we smiled a lot. We even clapped a few times. Because there are goofy scenes, yes, but then there are also moments that are funny in a quiet, homely kind of way. My favourite bits were Meera (the bride to be) translating some random ridiculousness to her American husband-to-be when he couldn't understand Hindi. Their relationship wasn't talked about much, but these little moments made them look like a real couple who teases each other and pokes each other. Of course, pyaar se. By the way, not sure if the role reversal was intentional but I like to think this is what Shashi and her husband would have been like at the beginning of their marriage. So just keep that in mind when you're laughing at Meera making fun of her fiance's difficulties with Hindi: if Satish is a jerk, then she is one too. Perspective is everything, no?

English Vinglish is not a story with fireworks and emotional outbursts. It doesn't need to be. It's just a simple little story about how people, words and events can change your attitude towards life in the blink of an eye. And about finding the right balance. It's the kind of movie that I know I could find flaws in (and I probably will on subsequent viewings) but its message is so endearing and so in line with my own life philosophy that I'd rather sit and munch on my ladoo with a smile on my face than nit-pick at it. While I do that, you go watch, I dare you to be a curmudgeon when you come out of it! And if you are, just watch the fabulous songs again!

PS: One more picture of Mehdi Nebbou at the premiere (courtesy of Filmicafe) because I could never resist a man dressed in black.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Ship of Theseus

A third into Ship of Theseus I had decided that I will not be blogging about it. Two thirds in, I was almost regretting trading my trip to the gym for a trip to see it. And then the last scene happened. And it all came together. And I thought: "Ha! Ok, now that's cool!". But I was still not going to write about it. And then something weird happened: I kept thinking about it the entire way home and well into the evening. Then I started talking about it at home. And, well, here I am... Hi blog friends!!!

I saw Ship of Theseus at an advance screening before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next week. And you all know how much I love TIFF, the festival that never fails to bring something to talk about on this blog. Even more so this year when there is an entire section dedicated to Mumbai filmmakers: City to City! That link, by the way, was just to make you all jealous, I won't be able to see every one of those movies, though I will try for as many as possible. Keep your fingers crossed for me to also get tickets for Midnight's Children and English Vinglish! I will need all the good karma you can send me. But back to our Ship!

Since I got one in my press kit (by the way, this is so exciting, I never got a press kit before!), here's the official synopsis:

An unusual photographer grapples with the loss of her intuitive brilliance as an aftermath of a clinical procedure. An erudite monk, confronting an ethical dilemma with a long held ideology, has to choose between principle and death. And a young stock broker, following the trail of a stolen kidney, learns how intricate morality can be. Following the separate strands of their philosophical journeys, and their eventual convergence, Ship of Theseus explores questions of identity, justice, beauty, meaning and death.

So why did I not want to write about it, you will ask. It's not that it's badly made. On the contrary, it's fabulously scripted, very well acted, and brilliantly shot. But it commits one unpardonable sin: it draaaaaags! It's almost as if the director forgot to say "cut" after every scene. So you find yourself "getting it" and then having to sit through another minute of imagery just to wrap it up. It gets tiring. I also think the film would have benefited from running the stories in parallel instead of one after the other. Even if the ideas didn't overlap (though they could have), at least we would have had a sense of cohesion throughout the film rather than feeling like we're watching three 45-minute films. But hey, we were told that there is editing still to be done, so maybe those of you watching this at TIFF will wonder what the hell I was talking about... I sincerely hope you will!

So forget all that. The content more than makes up for the lack of editing. If Ship of Theseus were a mockumentary it would begin like this: "You think you know about [insert theme]... But you have no idea!". Just kidding. But there's some truth to that. What the three stories do is take one theme (and I won't mention it because I want you all to suffer like I did until you figure it out mwahahaha!) and look at it, not from 2 antithetic points of view, but from six. Actually, seven.

Each story has two characters that are at opposite ends of the debate, each presenting an excellent string of arguments, with a seventh one thrown in at the end of the third story, adding the economic dimension (read: money). As their ideologies battle each other, the viewer gets to ponder on more than just who's right and who's wrong, a trivial question anyway. We're left analysing our own ideologies and the compromises we make.

Most of these characters are idealists: Maitreya (Neeraj Kabi), the monk, is so obstinate in his pledge for non-violence that he is willing to sacrifice his own life rather than support the pharmaceutical industry. But if you believe that you can make a difference in the positive through your fight, how much of a difference will you make in the negative by giving it up? Are your principles more important than yourself or do they end with the self? And while we're at it, what is the self anyway? A question that will keep coming back throughout the film, as expected from the title.

If Ship of Theseus were a book, this section would be the most highlighted because each line of dialogue carries some philosophical weight. Very little happens in this story, but much is talked about and every line is worth thinking about. The conversation goes from the importance of all living matter in the world to the effect that micro-organisms have on our actions and the debate is fascinating to say the least. Not many movies make me wish I could take notes, but this section sure did.

Aaliya (Aida El-Kashef), the photographer, is so passionate about her art that she follows it against every obstacle fate throws at her. She manages to create a laboratory of tools that make up for her eye-sight to the point where it seems that they also replace her craft. But when her eye-sight is restored and she doesn't need those crutches anymore she starts to doubt her own talent: how much did the tools facilitate and how much did they create? My favourite scene of the film is Aaliya in the middle of a busy intersection trying to take pictures and being assaulted by the noise, the commotion, the colours, the movement, the "subjects". The images go by at different speeds and we can really feel her confusion, her frustration, her helplessness because we're made to experience it ourselves. An excellent sample of the filmmaker's talent this scene (and the cinematographer's, for sure).

Aaliya's story reminded me of Luciano de Crescenzo's thoughts on the philosphy of Marsilio Ficino. To summarize it, de Crescenzo concludes that the human soul was built to fight against the hardships of life much like the propeller of a motorboat was built to work against the resistance of the water. Taking away the hardships is like taking away the water: it will break the engine.

Finally, the most eventful story, sees Navin (Sohum Shah), investigating the value of honesty. His preoccupation (obsession even?) with making things right leads him all the way across the world in what many would call a wild goose chase. Between lovely shots of Stockholm and heavy conversations, more questions arise: How much does ignorance excuse? Is there a best way to make amends for injustice? And last but not least: how much do principles weigh in money?

Of course the best part of the film is the last scene that reunites the three tracks and adds yet another layer to the story. But I won't spoil that for you.

I wanted to end this review with a word on the actors and a word on the cinematography, but I realize that other than finding fifty synonyms for brilliant, I can't do much else. There's a scene in the beginning of the movie where the camera closes in on a caterpillar crossing a busy corridor and we see dozens of shoes stepping around it, most of them a few centimeters shy of squashing it, though none does. That was the moment when I sank into my chair and thought: oooh, at least it's gonna be a pretty one! Luckily, it was more than just a pretty one!

To keep this in Ancient Greece territory, Ship of Theseus is like reading Plato's Dialogues: you're not there for what happens necessarily, you're there because of the questions it raises and because it makes you think about things you thought you knew in different ways. From this point of view Ship of Theseus is a fabulous experiment, one not to be missed, so here's hoping all the editing issues get resolved for its big debut at TIFF!

Ship of Theseus (2012, English, Hindi, Arabic, Swedish)
Director: Anand Gandhi
Starring: Sohum Shah, Aida El-Kashef, Neeraj Kabi
Director of Photography: Pankaj Kumar

Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Defense of Veronica and Imtiaz

Clearly I get too passionate about Imtiaz Ali's movies for my own good, but it's because for some reason I really, really get them (or I think I do anyway). And it bugs me when they get misinterpreted and judged by, well, people who don't get them.

I liked Cocktail. Didn't love it, and the second half was as messy as they say it is, with too many predictable situations and resolutions, but whatever, no rom-com is perfect, so overall I liked it. And as I've said before I'm all about the characters, so if the first half gives me a bunch of good solid characters and the second half doesn't mess it up too much, then I'm on board. Sure Imtiaz Ali could have been more progressive with Cocktail and written a completely different ending, like the girls ending up together or something (which quite a few people were rooting for) but... considering how many people ripped on Rockstar for the dumbest reasons, I can't really blame the guy. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie and you mind spoilers, stop reading right now. This is not a review, this is a spoilerific rant about what happens in the movie and how it all makes perfect sense to me. You've been warned.

I've been reading a few articles (not many, otherwise there would be a lot of four letter words in this blog post because they tend to get me angrier than I should allow) that talk about how stereotypical Cocktail is because Veronica is a slut, Meera is a virgin and "of course the virgin gets the guy".

Well, first of all, in what universe does the party girl who is clearly shown to be sleeping around get the guy? No, I don't just mean the Indian universe, I mean the WHOLE universe. I'll even take examples from real life, because I for one can't think of a single movie, other than Pretty Woman, where that happens. Let's make one thing clear, oh Indian reviewers who complain that Cocktail is not modern enough: party girls are not considered marriage material. Not here, not anywhere. Especially if they sleep around. It's not fair, it's sexist and it's bullshit, but unfortunately, that's how the world turns. I know because I've spent the last decade being enraged by the stupidity of this real life stereotype where guys who sleep around are studs, while girls who do it are sluts. And I've yelled at guy-friends more than once for calling girls cheap just because they had one-night stands. But you know... unfortunately, that's just how it is. And none of those girls that I was defending are married now (not that they want to be, but I'll get to that too, in a minute), and if they are in a steady relationship it's because enough time has passed since their party days that no one cares anymore. By the way, people still refer to them as the town bike behind their back. Yea, life sucks.

Having said that, those very people who "defend" Veronica's right to a love story and deplore that she didn't get the guy because she's a slut strike me as the most sexist of the lot. Because if they had actually understood the character, they wouldn't be calling her a slut to begin with. Oh, and they'd also have figured out that there was no point in her "getting the guy" because getting the guy is simply not the be all and end all of life. It's easy to get lost in stereotypes and yes, Cocktail does employ some stock characters to build the story on, but, in writing, a cliche is a problem only if it's used simplistically. If enough is built around it to justify it, then it's not a cliche anymore. Or as someone smarter than me once put it: has the cliche been earned? If so, it's cool. And this is the catch with Veronica: that cliche has definitely been earned by her character's backstory.

Veronica is fucked up. There's no way around this, she just is. She was abandoned by her parents who don't give two shits about her, she's been leeched off of probably her whole life because she has money, in fact it's been happening for so long that this has become her way of keeping people around, and she's incapable of building real, committed relationships. She loses herself in alcohol and drugs every night because she just wants to feel something. In a brilliant little scene after Veronica takes Meera home, she is shown talking to the videocamera and asking herself "How do I feel?", then unconvincingly concluding she feels "happy". That little scene sums up Veronica's needs in a nutshell. But to me Veronica gets the happiest ending of all three characters: she learns how to create and maintain a relationship that can give her the emotional stability she craves. That's what she thinks she wants from Gautam, and because society told her so, she thinks she can only obtain it by getting married and being a good wife. But the awesomeness of Cocktail is that she realizes she can have all this without giving up her personality.

How is that not modern enough? How can people be so narrow-minded as to root for her to "get the guy" and get married when that's EXACTLY what would obliterate her personality completely? Her personality, by the way, is not that she drinks and parties, but that she's free-spirited and independent. And not yet ready to settle down and play wife. Nothing wrong with that from where I'm sitting.

Which brings me to: Cocktail is not a movie about getting the guy, who marries him, who doesn't. The guy is completely irrelevant to the plot, or if you will, much like the girls are in Southie masala, he's just a catalyst for the plot. The real relationship, the real story happens between the girls. So even without going into bisexual territory, Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali create a romance between the two girls where they go through everything that two people in a romantic relationship would go through (or really, any kind of close relationship): they bond, they share, they make each other happy, they give each other emotional support, they balance each other out, they break up, they sacrifice things for each other and in the end realize that they still love each other. Voila. The story of every rom-com out there. Oh, but yeah, the guy is only a small part of it. Ooops, damn it, Cocktail writers, how dare you be so un-modern!

I guess this is the biggest point I wanted to make with this rant: if one looks at Cocktail from the traditional angle of the guy having to choose between two girls, then yes, it's cliched and it ends the way every other movie of its kind ends. But Cocktail changes the point of view and completely sidelines the male lead in order to give us the relationship between two strong, stubborn yet fragile, independent women (though each in a different way), whose friendship gets challenged by the events in the film. By the end we're almost not even invested in whether or not Meera and Gautam end up together but in how will Veronica and Meera make up because that's the relationship we don't want to see destroyed. For me it's a completely different movie when looked at from this point of view, and that's what I was hoping more people would take away from it.

Obviously this is Veronica's movie all the way, but I do have a few thoughts on the other two characters as well. First up: Gautam.

Gautam is described as a flirt and a social butterfly, but the movie shows us that it's only he who has that image of himself. He tries to flirt with girls all the time but I don't remember any scenes where that got him anywhere. Except for the scene at the office with the Asian client. And here I have to remind myself that this is a Hindi film and they have no clue how to even write Asian characters, so that was going to come out wrong anyway. But it's worth noting that the Asian lady merely forgives him for being late after he delivers his cheesy line, she doesn't go to bed with him or anything. She does show up at the club later on, but then so does everyone else in the office, so I read that as the company taking the client out, not as Gautam scoring with her. Of course, I could be wrong. If I am, then that's the only scene where his flirting gets him a date. And yes, I remember the waitress at the bar in the first scene, but I'm pretty sure she was really after a fat tip.

Then what happens with Gautam? He falls in love. Let's remind ourselves, by the way, that his summary of the relationship with Veronica is perfectly accurate: casual sex, companionship, no commitment offered or wanted from either side. No one ever mentions love. So why would he be at fault for falling in love with someone else? There's no betrayal from his point of view, he's free to do whatever he pleases. And that brings me to another thorny point: "he falls for Meera because she's the proper desi bride". Um... again... I disagree. He falls for Meera for the same reasons why Veronica loves her: she grounds him, she keeps him real, she doesn't take any of his bullshit and she is, unlike Veronica, emotionally available. By the by, the moment when Gautam starts noticing Meera is not in her demure interactions with his mother but rather when she lets herself go and channels her inner Veronica, showing that there's more fun to her than what Gautam initially thought.

So technically speaking, it's not the virgin that gets the guy, it's the wild side of the virgin that gets him to notice her. But that's once again going into details. The point here is: any guy would fall for Meera. And any guy looking to settle down would choose her, not because she's a virgin but because she exudes stability. It really is that simple. Or to put it more plainly: why wouldn't he choose her?

Meera on the other hand is the hardest one to read. I think the key to her character is in a little scene when she is looking at Gautam and Veronica being lovey-dovey. She wants that, but because she's so insecure she doesn't really know how to get it. So when it comes to her in the form of a reformed Gautam, she falls for it against her better judgement. She almost falls for it because she doesn't know any better and, just like Veronica, she craves that kind of affection without knowing where or how to get it. As Gautam so brilliantly puts it: "You're lonely and I'm characterless." Of course when the butterflies kick in all reason goes out the window, which reminds me that my favourite kind of criticism has been stuff like "She's so dumb that she falls for him". Uh... yeah... because you've never fallen for the wrong person despite knowing better. Because love has EVERYTHING to do with reason. Everything.

Sarcasm aside, did you ever notice that despite being such a "good girl" Meera never once judges Veronica for her loose ways? She has a couple of moments where she appeals to Veronica's non-existent sense of decency (such as asking where her pants are), but she never attempts to change her. Same can be said for Gautam: she judges him initially and is proved wrong (in a scene that is played for laughs, but I think it's pretty important), after which she concedes to get to know him and accepts him as Veronica's boyfriend.

Generally speaking people's capacity to accept each other for who they are, warts and everything, is what makes Cocktail stand out from the likes of Mujhse Dosti Karoge and other gems from the early 2000s. And what separates Gautam's mother's generation from this modern one. Yup, I said modern. Now sue me for defending such a "regressive", "cliched" and "trite" movie.

Oh dear, I've done it again. I've written a long blog post just to say to Imtiaz Ali: it's ok, I still love you, I still get you. Let those square-headed journos blabber, you just keep doing your thing and being awesome.

Ahem... Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. Cocktail. It's not a perfect movie, it's not free of plot holes and flaws. But there's more to it than the cliched love triangle that some reviewers are seeing it as. Way more to it.

Cocktail (2012, Hindi)
Director: Homi Adajania
Writers: Imtiaz Ali, Sajid Ali
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan, Diana Penty

Monday, July 16, 2012

Vedam Review

Vedam for me was one of those filmi film experiences that one never forgets. I had pestered the Toronto distributor for this film so much that the moment it arrived in a theatre here (two weeks after the release), he called me to let me know. Funny thing is, I had never met him but he knew who I was (probably from the Varudu screening where my friend and I were the only two goris, which attracted a ton of attention). When I got to the theatre for a Sunday morning screening, several people escorted me to my seat. I felt like such a rockstar.

But as always with Telugu movies, there were no subtitles, so at the time I decided to wait with my review until I had seen it with subs because I've learned over the years that the most awesome looking films can have the dumbest dialogues, so the saying about judging a book by its cover really applies most of the times.

The film follows the inter-weaved stories of:
- Cable Raju (Allu Arjun), a slum cable provider whose goal is to marry a rich girl
- Vivek (Manchu Manoj), a rock band singer looking to make it big in Hyderabad with his band
- Saroja (Anushka Shetty), a prostitute trying to move on to bigger business
- Ramulu (Nagayya), a weaver who owes money to the local gangster
- Khureshi (Manoj Bajpay, always a joy to watch), a Muslim man whose wife's unborn twins get killed in a religious incident.
All five stories come together in the end during a terrorist attack.

Namak: Boy, am I glad we had no subs for the first song in the theatre. We really should have turned them off on the DVD too.

Dolce: I'm sure they're not that bad in the original form.
Namak: But it's not just the lyrics, the picturization is atrocious as well.
Dolce: Heh, not every movie is a Rockstar, you know. Besides, what do we know about metal bands in Bangalore, maybe they all practice in huge empty warehouses and pose for imaginary photoshoots while singing and being all badass, smoking on the "sets" and other such acts of rebellion.

Namak: Ha! Or maybe the only reason why this song even exists is to make sure everyone got a song.
Dolce: Speaking of songs---
Namak: Yeah... I know. I know. How sexy and awesome is Prapancham?

Dolce: Possibly my favourite moves from Arjun, despite really loving a lot of his other songs. There's something uber-sexy in this one, and it's not just the fact that he wears his jeans "street-dancing style".
Namak: To show how gangsta' he is, yo!
Dolce: Shut up, you know you watched this song on repeat before writing this review.

Jokes aside, it is rather neat that almost every character intro is done through a song. Even the old man Ramulu is introduced to the rhythmic beats of the silk machine and the poem recited by his grandson. It's not an easy story to tell, with 5 different tracks eventually merging together in the end, but because of how different their environments are and because of how unique each character is, I was never confused. The ample intros really helped with that. 

In the beginning of the film the theme connecting everyone is escape: everyone is looking to get out of their current situation and build a better future for themselves (through money, fame or just respect). Krish seems to like ragging on that stereotype, it was a running theme in his first film as well, Gamyam. Which is fine, it's a good message to pass on, and it's cleverly used in this film because as the money or gold travels from one character to the next we get to really evaluate how deserving they are of it, and also how important it is for us as the viewer to see their problem resolved. I liked that just like the film's characters, I was also forced to choose who should end up with it.

Namak: Quite a few layers of the pyramid of needs here, no? Everything from wanting a rich wife, to wanting an education for your children, to starting a new business.
Dolce: Needs and wants. Old Ramulu's plight was really the only valid need. 
Namak: Why just his? When you think about it, his is also more of a want than a need: they're trying to get the money so his grandson can go to school and get an education which will provide a better life. Just because his sacrifice is bigger doesn't make his situation more tragic, emotions aside, of course.
Dolce: Well, if you look at it like that, anything other than the need for food is a "nice-to-have". How is Raju's situation then different from Ramulu's? He just wants a better life. And the persecuted Khureshi? He doesn't need to leave, he wants to.
Namak: That's just it, it's hard to draw the line. Who has the bigger need and who is more deserving. Which is probably what the movie was trying to say too, in giving us all these different scenarios. In the end, everyone earns their right to happiness, whatever that happy may be.

But there's more than one theme in Vedam, and another one that comes up in every story is religion. As much as I disliked the rock-band's entire story (including the obnoxiousness of Vivek's character, though there is a point to it in the end), they had a couple of good dialogues about humanity, thinking bigger than themselves and also, about how religion only divides because people don't "speak the same language". I found that track to be the most rushed and poorly established, but if more time had been spent on it, it could have been the best one. I'm always happy to see young people who successfully blend universal values such as compassion and tolerance with unorthodox lifestyles and I thought Lasya, Vivek's love-interest, really nailed that combo despite having only a few small scenes. It's too bad so much screentime had to be spent on Manoj Manchu's singing, but such is the filmi world we live in... it's all about the heroes.

But ultimately Vedam is a movie about sacrifice and humanity. It's a movie about how heroes are made in a world that is neither selfless, nor fair. And it's about those very rare moments when one realizes that being self-absorbed is an even bigger sin than stealing or lying. Sure, Vedam puts it in a very idealistic set-up, but hey, what's life without a little hyperbole?

Krish always seems to do well with visuals in his films, though song picturizations are not his forte. But he has an eye for atmospheric moments and snapshots that tell their own stories. The colony in which Raju conducts his illicit cable business got some of the coolest shots, though Saroja's brothel is a close second. Krish is almost as good with brothels as Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Uh... no pun intended, of course.

And because Allu Arjun was the main reason for me to even see this movie, can't leave without a word about him. The first time I watched Vedam I was convinced my favourite Arjun moments were his emotional scenes in the hospital. They're still my favourites. But I've added one more: in one of their very few interactions Saroja asks Raju if it's true love between him and the rich girl. His hesitant expression: part guilt, part conviction, part self-doubt... as if it was the first time he had to ask himself that question... Brilliant.

It's not that Vedam is a perfect film, it's not. It tries too hard in many places and stretches plausibility. And it has less than mediocre music. But it's also full of perfect little moments and imperfect little characters that win your heart. It may have taken the DVD a long time to come out, but it's one that was well worth the wait. Now excuse me while I go watch that wicked song again. Another 50 times.

Vedam (2011, Telugu)
Director: Krish
Starring: Allu Arjun, Manchu Manoj, Anushka Shetty, Nagayya, Manoj Bajpai
Music: MM Keeravani

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Patang (The Kite)

How do you review a movie like Patang, a film about a business-man from Delhi visiting his family in Ahmedabad during the Kites festival? A movie that's so lyrical, so heartfelt and so intimate that it feels like you're reading someone's diary rather than watching a movie. Like going through their childhood photo albums. Every frame of this film feels like a snapshot of a very private moment between the director and the city of Ahmedabad, with its kites in the sky, its busy streets, its cascading rooftops and its fascinating people.  

Don't let the trailer fool you: Patang is not a fast-paced documentary of city life set to bouncy music. Though there is excellent music in it. Patang is an elegantly choreographed medley of moments, all strung together by an invisible thread, like the lantern kite that Jayesh flies at the end of the Festival day. The glimpses we get of each character's life flicker and dance in front of us just long enough to get us hooked but never bright enough to allow a full examination of their situation. Which is just as well because this is not the type of movie to hint at what will happen to the characters after the last frame, in fact, this is not a "happening" movie at all. This is the type of movie where you're enjoying every minute you spend with them, wishing it would never end. It's a movie where you're just happy to be there.

We've seen a lot of movies lately trying to juxtapose the big city life of well-off entrepreneurs with the simple life of small-towners, but I have yet to come across a film that does it more sensitively than Patang. There's no good versus evil, no poor versus rich, no right and wrong. More importantly no one is judging from behind the camera, and when there is resentment in front of the camera, such as Chakku's bitterness towards his uncle, it's presented as such, not as some philosophical reproach towards the soul-less business people. Most of the times we don't even realize we're seeing a clash between the two worlds, though the battle of the kites is a clear indication that this is what the film is after.

Jayesh has been successful in business in Delhi, but he now spends less time with his daughter, Priya, and probably no time at all with his wife who chose a wine tasting over this weekend of family time. His mother on the other hand complains constantly about the discomfort of her life, but refuses to be moved to a modern home. Priya on her side is constantly documenting the feel of Ahmedabad with her camera, but she rejects the feelings of a local boy considering them unimportant. Bobby, the local boy, dreams of going away from Ahmedabad and his father's electronics shop, but he whole-heartedly praises the city's unique charm to Priya in an attempt to make her stay. This happens with everyone in the film: more than the battle between the two worlds, we see a little battle within each character, each desperately trying to reconcile their big dreams with the little joys of simple life.

In a film so rich in subtext there's always the danger of creating an artificial distance with the viewer who is not given enough surface to land on in order to dig deeper. But the director finds a way to retain the intimacy of our relationship with the characters by physically shortening that distance with close-ups and detail-focused compositions, giving the film that home-video feel. If home-videos could ever look so gorgeous, that is.

Of course a lot of the credit also goes to the actors, 90% of them actually non-actors, as the director pointed out to us at the Toronto screening, who bring such a natural, unrehearsed feel to the film.

The one line that stayed with me from the whole film is said by Soudha to her brother-in-law towards the end of the film. She says, and I quote from memory: "I don't like it when the kites battle in the skies and they cut each other. I like it when they soar high, as high as they can." And so it is that after the numerous micro-clashes that take place during the film, what soars above it all through the wisdom of these words is the ability to accept everyone for who they are. At the end of the film we leave the characters almost the same way we found them, but maybe, hopefully, just a tiny step closer to each other.

How do you review a movie like Patang? Not surprisingly the answer is you don't. You just try to pour enough love on the page to ensure others will go see it too. That's really all you can do.

Patang (2011, Hindi)
Director: Prashant Bhargava
Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Seema Biswas, Sugandha Garg