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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

New and Old Love for Salaam-e-Ishq

I really loved Salaam-e-Ishq when I first saw it some 4 years ago. And I kept meaning to rewatch it but... life got in the way. Especially when you have to make time for 3.5 hours. So I just kept rewatching the songs (yes, I will rave again about Saiyaan Re! You didn't think I'd skip that step, did you?) and postponing the movie for another time.

Well, that time has come. I rewatched it. And my biggest conclusion from this experience is that the deeper you get into a hobby, the more quirks and pet peeves you develop. As much as I try to stay as open minded as I was when I watched my first Indian film, it seems that learning about the industries and about the culture over the years has altered my perception of certain tropes, plots and situations. And so it was that Salaam-e-Ishq won me over this time more with its technical prowess than with its stories. The best part about this rewatch was following how the tracks flow into each other, how one person picking up the phone in one story leads to another hanging up the phone in a completely different story. Truly masterful and engaging, I didn't want to miss a single frame. And that's a huge compliment for a movie that's 3.5 hours long and has so many characters to follow.

The first time I saw Salaam-e-Ishq, a movie that deftly juggles five love stories (I refuse to consider Sohail Khan trying to bang Isha Koppikkar as even a part of the story) I was in love with three of its tracks:

1) Tehzeeb and Ashu, the sweet Muslim-Hindu couple who fight to cope with Tehzeeb's memory loss after a train accident. I found Ashu's love for Tehzeeb and his hopeless battle to restore his wife's memories so touching that I didn't even mind the windblowing machine gently caressing Ashu's hair every time he was in the frame.

2) Raju and Stephanie, the Indian cab driver who falls for the white memsaab in search of her two-timing Indian boyfriend. This was the first time I found Govinda cute with his undeclared love for Stephanie and their tender chemistry made this one of my favourite couples ever.

3) Kkamini and Raoool, the filmi couple: Kkamini an item queen looking to land a part in a Karan Johar movie (why, Kkamini, whyyyyy???) and Raool a man posing as her fiance for PR purposes. I found them deliciously over the top and they gave the movie that glitz and glitter that I love so much in Bollywood.

The fourth story, Gia and Shiven, a couple about to get married solving the groom-to-be's cold feet issues, was cute and I really enjoyed Akshaye Khanna in it, but at the time I didn't find it memorable. Except for Shiven's bachelor party song. Hehe! You knew it was coming!

Last but not least, the fifth couple: Vinay, a man going through a mid-life crisis and Seema, his dutiful wife, annoyed the heck out of me, mostly because I found Vinay's punishment for cheating on his wife too light. Yes, I am cruel like that.

This time around, the only constant from the previous viewing was my disdain for the Sohail and Isha story. Nothing changed there. But let me tell you how all the other stories changed for me.

Tehzeeb and Ashu
I think Jhoota Hi Sahi ruined John Abraham for me forever. Now that I know he can act... I simply cannot tolerate sub-par acting from him anymore. It's sad really, because he does a decent job most of the time here, but poor man seemed so fake after being tear-gassed for most of the movie that I could not get into it anymore.

That said, I still found their story to have a lot of potential and I still appreciated the ending for its realism. Everything from the moment when they land in Shiven's apartment defied Bollywood conventions and that makes this couple rock even now. If only that fabulous writing could have been matched by John's acting... If only! 

Raju and Stephanie
This was the biggest disappointment for me because I never would have imagined seeing this story in a different way, but many love at first sight plots and too many goris in Bollywood later, I seem to have become very touchy to everything that uses either of the above. I know Raju was supposed to be so sweet with his dream of falling in love with a white tourist, but I simply failed to see the difference between his desire for Stephanie, and Stephanie's NRI fiance's decision to marry an Indian girl. Both were more preoccupied with the colour of the girl's skin than with who she really was. Don't get me wrong, I don't doubt that Raju's feelings were sincere in the end, as opposed to the NRIs, but a love story stemming out of camaraderie would have worked a lot better. As it was, Raju's obsession with meeting a gori memsaab made him seem shallow and yes, slightly creepy, despite Govinda's cuteness.

Also, after so many movies where the white girl just falls for the Indian guy because... uh... because he's Indian and people enjoy seeing such plots for whatever reason, I've come to be annoyed whenever this happens in a movie. Not to mention that it's really just a twist on the old stalking plot device: if you love her long enough and selflessly enough, she'll fall in love with you. No, Stephanie honey, no. You don't love him back after three days just because he's Indian and because he loves you more than your d00che-bag boyfriend. You might like him, you might be friends with him forever, and over time it may even grow into love, but you don't "unse pyaar karti ho". Or if you do, requesting permission to roll my eyes.

Kkamini and Rahoul
I still totally enjoyed these two characters. Though something about Salman Khan's facial expressions irritates the crap out of me. He reminds me of Cher whose high cheek bones and puckered lips are somehow mistaken for expression by whoever is still giving her acting roles. I've warmed up to Salman in his action roles only because they require minimal histrionics, but the serious scenes in a film like Salaam-e-Ishq really bring out his inability to project emotion. But all good, most of his role was calling for over the top antics, so it almost worked out for him. Besides, how cool is it to see a dude coming to propose riding a white horse? In London. Wearing aviator sunglasses. Classic!

I was once again bugged by the fact that Kkamini has to give up either love or her career, but this time around, because I feel that the industry has progressed somewhat since the times when this film was made, I can still hope that even if Karan Johar doesn't make her his heroine, other directors will. So this time around I didn't see her choice as a career-ending move anymore which made me happy. Amazing what 5 years can do to my perception of the industry, no?

Gia and Shiven
I don't think I used to like Akshaye Khanna as much as I like him now, so he really was a treat this time around. Despite the fact that his character was an idiot, he managed to make Shiven relatable, if not understandable. Yes, he's immature, shallow and disrespectful, but when he does get it, his change of heart is genuine and he does it while remaining the person that Gia fell in love with the first time around. I really enjoyed his scene at the wedding because everything he said and did was very much consistent with his goofball character. He continues to be immature and shallow, but he's now realized he wants to spend the rest of his days with Gia. Too many movies confuse falling in love (or realizing that one is in love) with a complete change of character and it's refreshing to see one that doesn't. Ullu da patha he started and ullu da patha he remains.

That said I was still confused about Gia's motivations, she really seemed keen on getting married, and I wasn't exactly sure why. Presumably the parents? Not sure... But I probably would have been freaked out about it too had I been in Shiven's shoes. Just sayin...

Vinay and Seema (and Anjali)
It's perhaps a good time to admit that I skipped through most of the scenes involving Vinay's younger love interest, including her song. That whole bit seemed heavy handed to me the first time around and I didn't think time would have made it better. But what caught my attention this time was the colour palette used with this couple. Or rather the non-colour palette, as everything is some shade or other of grey. Vinay's house, his office, his wardrobe, Seema's wardrobe, everything is blatantly lifeless, which is a stark contrast with Anjali's image: the highlights in her hair, the glitter on her diary, the excitement of her life as a dancer. Now I realize that this contrast could have been handled in a more subtle way, but I actually kind of liked the way it worked out visually and well... Salaam-e-Ishq is not a movie to take home any awards for finesse.

Also I found myself in a more forgiving mood this time. I wasn't as outraged by Seema's final decision because it did feel that Vinay had learned his lesson. And I suppose over the years I have come to appreciate that about people more than I used to. Funny how that is...

Overall Salaam-e-Ishq is still a winner in my book and I am still in awe at how effortlessly it sucked me in all over again, but I think some of that wide-eyed innocence I used to have when watching glittery Indian movies is gone for good now. Classic case of "it's not you, it's MEEEE!!", huh?

Salaam-e-Ishq (Hindi, 2007) 
Starring: Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Anil Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Akshaye Khanna, Ayesha Takia, John Abraham, Vidya Balan, Govinda, Shannon Esra, Sohail Khan, Isha Koppikar 
Directed by: Nikhil Advani 
Choreography: Bosco Caesar

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Shanghai - A Highriser but not quite a Skyscraper

Hey guys, it's me. Oh, wait a minute, let me clean up the spiderwebs off the screen for you. Ah... there. Can you see me now? Remember me? It's a little dusty in here, and weeds have started growing in the corners of the floor of this space, but I brought a broom and a review to try and make this blog seem alive again.

And contrary to my usual format, I'll give you Dolce and Namak only for the first half while reserving the second half to a long rant about what didn't sit right for me in Shanghai (link to trailer).

Dolce: Emraan Hashmi is totally adorable! Where has he been until now? And more importantly: how did he manage to be the only character in this movie that my heart went out to despite his horrible looks? 
Namak: He's been around, but either he was great in movies where others stole the show, or he was strictly ok in movies that weren't much to write about. I'm pretty sure this is the first role where I can say he was absolutely brilliant. 

If someone had told me I would ever watch an Abhay Deol movie and fall in love with Emraan Hashmi I would have laughed for hours. Not because I haven't appreciated him before, I have, but he never blew me away. In Shanghai he most certainly did. From behind his Quasimodo-like appearance this videographer turned pr0nographer displays more warmth and wit than any other character in this story (sorry about the hacker spelling, by the way, just trying to avoid popping up in dirty searches). 

Dolce: And how s3xy was that angular moustache on Abhay Deol? 
Namak: I'm not sure about s3xy, but it did certainly add a je ne sais quoi to his persona. 

Dolce: Perfect casting? 
Namak: Perfect from where we're sitting. Though some critics have taken issue with the fact that his Tamil accent is not up to par, this is one of those times when not being native Hindi speakers really works in our favour. 
Dolce: Indeed. Besides, I can't think of anyone who would have pulled off his last scene so smoothly and with so much panache. Proof that you don't need to wield a machete or to shout your lines at the top of your lungs to be a badass. You can deliver a deadly blow even in a soft spoken, almost blank tone. A masterpiece of direction and histrionics that scene. 
Namak: Agreed. Though when it comes to Abhay Deol I expect excellence anyway.
Dolce: Sheesh! I would not want to be your kid. 

Dolce: And Kalki? 
Namak: Kalki is a tricky one. She's certainly competent but just like I'm getting tired of seeing Anushka Sharma playing the cheerful Punjabi kudi, I am also getting a little bit fed up with Kalki being typecast into the feisty outsider roles. For once I'd like to see her be happy in a few scenes. She has such a radiant smile, she comes across as such a fun person in her live appearances, if only someone could bring that on the screen too.

How adorable is she? Why can we not get that in her movies?
Dolce: Well, it's hard to avoid playing the outsider, she's white. 
Namak: True, but even outsiders can be happy and normal in India, no? 

Really all the actors in Shanghai did a fabulous job. Not a single character felt out of place, and it's a tribute to the fantastic craftsmanship of Dibakar Banerjee that we never once got lost in trying to keep track of the politicians and play-makers. In a film where so much space is given to the main characters and so little to the myriad of secondary characters surrounding them, I was truly impressed with how easy it was to identify not only who each of them were, but also what title they held and whose side they were on.

Dolce: Let's not forget the wonderful music! 
Namak: Though I'd rather forget that they didn't use our favourite song from the soundtrack. 
Dolce: I'm willing to forgive them for this because Imported Kamariya was such a delight! Not only was the song gorgeous (and tongue in cheek) but its deft editing around the scene that jumpstarts the movie was top-notch. 
Namak: That it was. And you know what else was top-notch? The background music. I can't remember the last time a film's background music made such an impression on us.

From the background music to the editing, to the sets, to the little things, such as a little slip on the freshly washed pavement, or the enthusiasm of the chai-wallahs buzzing around the politicians, or the subtle (and not so subtle) displays of power of the various police officers that come and go, Shanghai certainly gets all the details right.

One thing can not be denied about Shanghai: it's a well-crafted movie. Which makes my next comments even more painful because I really wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to leave the theatre and tap my feet on the subway anxious to get home and blog about it. And in a way I did, but not because it was a fabulous movie, rather because it wasn't fabulous enough.

Corruption is a big topic. In fact it's so big, so prevalent and so powerful that it becomes background noise for most of us, like pollution. We're aware of it, we know our way around it, we live in it, so we don't really notice it anymore. In order to make a powerful film about such a big topic, you would have to zero in on a situation, a set of characters, a moment in history that people can truly relate to. I felt that this was Shanghai's biggest flaw: it didn't make me care. Not only did it not give me enough background on the situation overall (though I can fill in the blanks thinking about similar situations in my own home country), but it also didn't manage to focus enough on the one situation it chose to describe.

Let me make a parallel. In the excellent The Ides of March there is a character (a woman) whose death sets in motion the entire plot of the movie. Her death is used and abused by everyone involved, in whatever way better serves their own purposes, without any regard whatsoever paid to the fact that she was a human being. THAT was irony. And it hurt, it made me shake my head, it made me think, it made me angry. In Shanghai, dr. Ahmedi's death is used much in the same way, but nothing about it made me give a crap or lament his cruel fate. I thought about the differences and it basically comes down to: the woman in Ides of March was a real person, we got to know her in a few short scenes, we knew her aspirations, knew her motivations, we knew she wasn't an angel, but that made her even more human. In Shanghai we know almost nothing about the doctor. He comes to deliver his speech and he exits the frame as empty as the street that he's left lying on. I can't bring myself to care for his death or for his cause because I'm not told at any point why he is fighting it, what he hopes to gain from it, or even who he is. It doesn't help that throughout the movie details about his womanizing ways keep popping up, but again, with more character development these details would have only made him human. This backstory minimalism ends up rippling through the entire movie: we can only guess that Shalini's motivations have something to do with her feelings for the doctor and with her own sense of justice, but neither feels terribly compelling. We can guess that Krishnan's actions are driven by disgust and disenchantment, but none of it is showcased in a significant way. Shanghai's characters just float above their own actions without any kind of engagement. And maybe that's the whole point, maybe this movie is supposed to be exactly about Gen Y and its detachment from its own future, its abandonment to a present that it feels it can't change, but in this particular case the economy of emotion ended up alienating me from the very topic that I'm supposed to invest in.

Another example that may resonate more with Indian movie-goers is Vidya Balan's Kahaani. Leaving aside the sloppiness that allowed me to guess the twist (and effectively ruined the movie for me), her character keeps the viewer engaged because we feel in every frame how passionate and driven she is. In Shanghai my eyes and my ears never told me why I should care, even though my mind could easily piece it together. But that simply wasn't enough.

Last but not least since we talked about Imported Kamariya, another pet peeve of mine: when, oh when, will they stop putting the equal sign between progress and corruption. When, oh when, will they stop confusing moving forward with killing India's soul? Is everything that's imported bad? Capitalism is not the devil, people! It's a system like any other. One that can be abused, or that can be used for good. Capitalism and progress don't bring corruption if corruption is not already there. You don't think capitalism would work in India? Fine, come up with an alternative. But enough of this habit of blaming everything that's wrong in that country on progress. A system doesn't abuse itself, you need people to abuse it. Ponder a bit on that, scriptwriters!

Maybe I went in with the wrong expectations, most of them caused by the film being described as a satire (which I didn't think it was, I thought it was merely social commentary). Maybe the wit and the irony got lost in translation. Maybe too much praise on Twitter did the film a disservice. Either way, I felt that Shanghai fell short of greatness. A good movie, a movie that should be watched, but not the brilliant satire that it claimed it would be. At least not for me.

Shanghai (2012)
Director: Dibakar Banerjee
Starring: Abhay Deol, Emraan Hashmi, Kalki Koechlin, Pito Bash, Prosenjit Chatterjee
Music: Vishal-Shekhar