Thursday, June 24, 2010

Raajneeti vs. Raavan? Neah! Let's try something different!

Everyone and their neighbour seems to be talking about Raavan these days, and I've read more than one review that explored the parallels between Raavan (with Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek Bachchan & Vikram) and Raajneeti (with Manoj Bajpai, Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Ajay Devgn, Nana Patekar, Arjun Rampal & others), as two modern day adaptations of Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respectively. Considering I spent quite a bit of time with my Tamil, non-Indian-movie-watching friend, rubbishing Raavan/Raavanan, I find it a bit hypocritical to sit here and do a review of the movie pointing out its virtues. So after acknowledging Santosh Sivan's exquisite camerawork, for which I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the theatre to see this one (while plugging your ears to the plot issues and only using them for the songs), I decided to not honour Raavan with a review, and talk about Raajneeti instead. Dolce can take her gushing about how gorgeous Aishwarya Rai looked in Raavan and how badass Vikram was (in both the Tamil and the Hindi version) elsewhere. I will not give in.

Luckily it's fairly easy to steer Dolce's attention to Raajneeti because all we have to do is mention a certain set of shots of a brooding Ranbir Kapoor's Samar masterminding his lethal game of politics, while hungrily consuming cigarette after cigarette in the room where he had probably played on his late father's knees 20 years back.

Not that there are no issues with Raajneeti, Namak points out. Sure there are. Weak acting from Arjun Rampal, a terribly miscast Ajay Devgan who should have learned by now that at his age it's downright impossible to pass as a 20 year old anymore without being laughed at, a rather disappointing use (or should I say non-use) of the soundtrack, and last but not least, a poor adaptation of the epic that inspired it.

Dolce: Heh, as if you knew anything about the Mahabharata to begin with...
Namak: Touche, but the fact that certain aspects of the film cannot be explained within the world of the film, and require us to research the original story is proof enough to me that the adaptation did not quite hit all the right notes.
Dolce: That's the problem with over-analysing. If you kept everything simple, you wouldn't have to worry about all this research and you'd just appreciate the movie as it is. If you didn't know that it references the Godfather, if you didn't know that it mirrors the Mahabharata, and you just judged it on its own, you'd have a much better understanding of the story. You're just confusing yourself.
Namak: But when characters make decisions that are not justified by the scenario of the movie, I can't help but look for the source of that decision. I just voted Raavan down because it felt to me like a pointless story, a stunningly beautiful story with nothing to communicate and nowhere to go, a story that doesn't live past the last row of trees in the jungle. I can't close my eyes to the fact that Raajneeti encounters the same challenge, even if it cruises through it in a more engaging way that doesn't allow for as many analytical pit stops. But once the movie is over, you still wonder: why? Why are we being told this story? Who are these characters and how do we relate to them? And what justifies the actions of this power thirsty Samar Pratap who will let nothing stand between him and the victory that, as it turns out, he doesn't even want?
Dolce: You're missing the point again: beyond the fact that we went to see this movie to see Ranbir Kapoor playing this cold, dark, calculated killing machine, and to enjoy a stellar performance by Nana Patekar in the antithetical positions of coach and executor of above mentioned schemes (and we were amply rewarded on both counts), you have to look at how the movie makes sense on its own, without leaning on crutches.

Hard to do, but not impossible, as Namak is about to find out. I'll leave Dolce to coach her through the episodes that need further explanations and hope that "because Ranbir is hot" will not be used as an argument at any point in that conversation, and let's see what the story is about.

Trailer with subtitles

I had initially compared Raajneeti to Luck By Chance in the sense that it puts the spotlight on a world that most of us have only seen the moonlit contour of. But I was wrong. Raajneeti is no Luck by Chance. Raajneeti is for politics what Om Shanti Om was for the film industry (specifically Bollywood). Instead of the over the top glamour we have over the top violence with plenty of shooting and explosions, instead of the reincarnation and revenge story we have a multi faceted revenge story, instead of the possibility of Om being happy again with Sandy we get the potential for an equally unsatisfying "happy ending" for our main character in Raajneeti. And lo and behold, there is even the theme of literally handing down allegiance from the elders to the young, based not on merit but on industry connections and family roots. Much like Om Shanti Om, Raajneeti is made to entertain, and if under all the blinding explosions it carries a deeper message, it only comes to us in metaphors.

Once presented with this angle, Namak has started seeing the movie in a different light. Maybe the killing sprees are not meant as a realistic depiction of the political system in India, maybe getting away with murder and rape is not the norm (though even in North America one could argue that for the right price, a high profile enough politician could get away even with murder), and maybe the blood on everyone's hands is not really blood. Instead, let's assume the killings stand for equally important personal convictions that one gives up for the sake of power, for relationships that get sacrificed and truths that are dragged through the mud until they become so fragmented that a whole new universe of lies could float on them. Let's assume that everyone who is murdered on the eve of election day represents a virtue, or better yet, a confronting thought that will be buried on election day. Let's say that it doesn't matter who that last body is, and whether or not the same blood runs through their veins, in the end their memory will be buried under the bitter satisfaction of victory. Then Samar's last bullet fired under the experienced eyes of Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar) is simply the last bastion of conscience.

Namak: Rrey, are you sure you're not making this whole scenario up to justify your precious Ranbir's choice of movies?
Dolce (with a sheepish smirk): I guess you'll never know... But give me a bit of credit: I still maintain Bachna Ae Haseeno is a piece of trash.
Namak: Hm...True. But then your theory doesn't hold water in front of the ending.
Dolce: Sure it does: innocence may triumph, but those with blood on their hands will always be there, even if they choose to fade in the background. Metaphorically speaking, of course, to not ruin the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.
Namak: I seriously doubt that's what the director had in mind when he created this story.
Dolce: Oh, don't worry, I doubt it too.

Nonetheless, my two girls now walk out of the theatre much more pleased with the message of the movie, and move on to discussing other crucial aspects such as that great shot of Ranbir ever so slowly drinking a glass of water that becomes red after the blood in his mouth drips back into the glass, or the editing on one of the car explosions where the song Mora Piya was used brilliantly, or what could have been an excellent item number to the song Ishq Barse. And speaking of! Ishq Barse reminds me about a whole other post in the making, so even though we're closing this conversation here, fear not, Raajneeti is not done with its moment in the sun.

Raajneeti reminds me of one of my favorite cheeses: Saint Agur. It's over the top and it stinks to high heaven and you won't see much past that initially, but try putting it in your mouth and really thinking about the taste and it just might surprise you with some enjoyable bitter-sweet notes on the back of your tongue.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Namak's Irreverent (and Irrelevant) Answers to Her Own Newbie Questions

After having seen a few Indian movies, Namak has finally figured out a few things, which she was wondering about when she started watching these films.

Why all the wardrobe changes in songs? 
See, because a lot of times the character requires a certain look during the movie, and how is she/he supposed to show off their good looks and toned abs without the opportunity to change into a few more revealing outfits, eh? Regardless of the topic of the movie or the overall look, the songs are generally the part where glamour reigns supreme, therefore giving us the opportunity to enjoy some glitter and colour even in an otherwise more... earthly looking movie. 

Why do they dance in movies to begin with? 
I could give you the real answer about how music, and implicitly dance, is so much more a part of the Indian culture than it is in any Western culture, but... I won't. 
Instead, my take on it is that as far as the movie industries down South are concerned, the answer is simple: because they CAN! Enough said. Hats off to MinaiMinai for providing this excellent summary of everything that we love about dancing in Southie movies... even if Allu Arjun was mercilessly removed from the competition (I like to think it's because he would have put all the other guys to shame).

It's slightly more complicated up North in Bollywood, because the reality is a lot of them... can't. So why subject themselves and us to the torture? Well, we're glad to point out that they have finally realized that and have cut down substantially on the dancing, at the risk of losing some of the good stuff in the process. Sadly this also means that some of the truly good dancers are not required to dance anymore: yes, Ranbir Kapoor, I am looking right at you! 
You want good dancing? Just watch Tollywood. Um... Or Chance Pe Dance.  

Why are all the movies love stories? 
This was a tough one. The first answer that comes to mind is, of course, they're not all love stories. But even when they're not, one must admit there is almost always a love story component, and even some movies with no romance manage to somehow get acted out as a love story (Chak De India comes to mind: hockey might as well be Shah Rukh's love interest considering how he talks about it). Beyond the obvious and politically incorrect answer: Indian people, male or female, all love a good over the top love story because they're all huge saps, the best answer we could come up with was: love is the spice of life, it can't be done without lest we end up with a bland dish. So, as much as it pains me to say this: if you really are allergic to love stories, good or bad, maybe Indian movies are not for you.

Having said that, for those interested, Dolce and Namak can further elaborate on a short list of films that are not love stories and, in fact, don't even have a love story component: A Wednesday, Taare Zameen Par, Manorama Six Feet Under, The Blue Umbrella, Tahaan, Amal (ok, a little love story, but very brief, and fine, I know it doesn't technically count as an Indian movie, get off my case!), Chameli, to name only the most obvious that come to mind. In the South, the most recent one I've seen that didn't have any real love stories was Vedam.

Last but not least it's entirely arguable that Telugu masala movies are in fact love stories. A lot of what Namak and Dolce have been watching could not really pass as a love story in the real world: girl chases boy who is trying very hard to peel girl off him because he has more important things to do (such as fight legions of goondas/rowdies and bring justice back to the city), and finally gives in at the end of the movie, after some fantasy songs with them romancing in the rain. Or the alternative: boy is all over girl like a dirty shirt, with girl spending 90% of the movie trying to get away from him only to realize at the end that she loved him all along. Pretty sure that would not fly as a love story anywhere outside the filmi world.  

What's up with all the crying? 
Another tough one... This goes with the more emotional, and also more physical side of acting in Indian movies which will probably get its own blog rant some day. In short, one has to understand Indian movies come with their own style: acting, filming, communicating information. You either get to like it or you don't. Communicating through song is one of these conventions. Displaying emotional reactions without a filter is another. Besides, where would all the world's reserves of glycerine and atropine go, now that politicians are not bothering to show off their sensitive side anymore, and are more preoccupied with throwing dirt at each other during campaigns?

Will you say this answer also applies to overacting?
Please, I prefer to refer to it as theatre-style acting. And since the phrasing of your question just made it uncool to give a similar answer as above, despite the fact that it would probably be the correct one, I will instead rejoice in the very physical, tangible way of acting in Indian movies because it is the only thing that permits me to follow un-subtitled South Indian movies that Dolce drags me to see in theatres. If everything was subtle and the director relied on quirky phrases rather than on an actor's face to communicate the message, we'd both be sitting at home biting our nails and waiting for the DVD.

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Praise of All Filmi Women Who Have My Respect

It's entirely possible that my DNA slept in when the feminism gene got distributed because I can't bring myself to ever be much of a feminist. In fact I often find myself siding with the guy, even when he's a jerk (granted, only if he ends up redeeming himself somehow), so women tend to get overlooked by me.

In light of a few recent conversations about female roles in cinema - and not necessarily in Indian cinema - I started thinking about what can be said in defense of the depiction of women in Indian cinema. (I will unfortunately have to talk exclusively about Bollywood, because given the nature of the action packed, hero-heavy Southie movies I have watched so far, the women in the South have not yet managed to impress me.) And I reached the somewhat surprising conclusion that I like certain Indian ladies much more than their American counterparts. While in North American movies (and TV shows) being an independent, powerful woman has become synonymous with being a bitch, or hating men, or at least with being a cheeky brat (can you tell the latest HW movie I've seen was Prince of Persia?), the few characters that did impress me in Bollywood in the strong woman avatar achieved that without hitting any of the above pre-requisites. I have more respect for those few Women in Indian cinema than for the million females in Western cinema because for me being an attractive woman implies managing to balance smarts with sensitivity and sweetness.

(played by Kajol) in Fanaa and Dia (played by Madhuri Dixit) in Aaja Nachle are the first women who come to mind that strike that fine balance.

Zooni knows how to put relentless Rehan in his place but without once becoming snarky or cheeky. She manages to rebuff him (with poetry too!) while still remaining accessible and interesting. And she does wonderfully as a capable single mother in the second half of the movie. This is a woman who will not let destiny tell her what to do and where to be, and it's almost ironic that Rehan teases her in the beginning about only doing what her parents advised her to. Boy does she prove him wrong! Regardless of how many ways to interpret the ending of the movie there are out there, one thing is for sure: Zooni sticks to her principles throughout the entire journey, all while living life to the fullest, and I for one respect that.

I have very similar feelings for Madhuri's character, Dia, in Aaja Nachle because despite being just a little bit on the snarky side, she graciously dances her way through being a single mother and a successful professional in the US while not losing that feminine side of her personality. Even if she sometimes manages her own interactions with men "the American way", her Indian feminine side comes through when she coaches Anokhi to get the attention of the man she loves. I suppose it also helps that this is the sexiest Madhuri has ever looked too!

There are other great examples of women being dealt a bad hand and proving that giving up is not an option, but that neither is turning bitter and resentful. However, not all women become strong because fate doesn't give them a choice. Some Indian ladies are wonderful, cool, uncompromising women from the very beginning. In this category I have also picked two favourites: Aisha in Wake Up Sid! and Jodhaa in Jodhaa Akbar.

Aisha lives by herself, makes it on her own terms and despite not having many friends in a new city, she doesn't rely on anyone to rescue her. Most importantly she's capable of seeing and appreciating the change in Sid when other women would have probably walked away. She can be playful and sexy as needed, and when she makes a mistake in evaluating a potential relationship with a man, she is confident enough to call it. I liked that even when she is upset or displeased with Sid (and there's a lot of that, let me tell you) she still communicates without excessive bitterness or unnecessary spite. What is there not to love? One of my favourite Konkona Sen Sharma roles.

Jodhaa is my last entry on this short list that is just the tip of the iceberg. The Rajput princess won me over with her determination and valour, spiced by a little bit of mischief and just a sprinkle of flirt to complement her majestic beauty. She stands her ground in front of the most powerful man on the continent and wins every battle without having to become a man or behave like one.

I realized after giving this some thought that as much as we always point out that Bollywood is eons behind when it comes to empowering the fair sex, they have a knack for getting it exactly right when they do put their minds to it. The last female character that charmed me so completely in Hollywood was Baz Luhrman's Juliet, and guess what: neither Baz nor Shakespeare hail from Hollywood!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

2 Degrees of Separation – from Anime to Indian movies

Everyone who is not desi gets to Indian movies through a complex, sometimes incredible, chain of seemingly unrelated events. What with these movies not being that popular outside the diaspora, at least not in this part of the world, one always wonders how do we stumble upon this world and what predisposes us to get sucked into it? I look back at my history of hobbies and preferences and realize that many of them have a lot in common with Bollywood/Indian movies. The series 2 Degrees of Separation sets out to explore (over an indefinite number of episodes) each of these likes and dislikes that contributed to my finding Bollywood.

Today's episode: anime!

Not sure how many other kids grew up on Japanese (or not always Japanese) animated shows, but I sure did. Candy Candy, Sailor Moon, Saint Seiya and Macron 1 are just some of the names that come to mind, and now that I think about it it's impressive how many bad anime shows I watched (but I suppose that's just another similarity because it's also quite impressive how many bad Bollywood films I have watched too). So it's no surprise I rekindled that love affair later on in life with more mature shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Berserk, etc.

Even though the styles have changed drastically over the years in both anime and Indian movies, certain elements have endured and it's interesting to note it's the elements (big or small) that the two industries have in common.

Disney's cartoons and Hollywood actors don't know to act with their eyes. Sure, their body language is excellent and the scripts are certainly superior, so maybe the eyes don't really matter as much. But I can't begin to imagine how hollow Indian movies as well as anime shows would be were it not for the million expressions that the characters can summon in one glance. Whether it's the over-sized, excessively glittery anime orbs, or the endlessly expressive glances of Indian actors, they sure know how to tell a tale without uttering a single word.

Proof? Let's see how easy it is to understand what is happening in this video with no sound.

Not convinced? Come now, don't make me dig for videos of characters getting their hearts broken and reacting to it in exquisite mute despair because I have a ton of Aamir Khan scenes up my sleeve for that.

Need I explain this one? From the big melodrama, to the exaggerated reactions in front of the smallest, silliest things, to the bulging eyes literally taking up the whole screen, no Indian movie or anime show would ever be complete without a little, as Johnny Depp would say in Alice in Wonderland, “muchness”.

And to continue the point above, did you notice how the elements always conspire to express the hero or the heroine's feelings at a certain time in Indian movies? It's always raining when there's sadness and romance, it's always windy when there's loss, it's always dark when there's drama, the leaves are falling when someone is dying. Heh... sadly the American productions have lost that communion between man and nature. But they're definitely there in anime. Check out this scene from Sailor Moon complete with instant rain!

When I was little my sister and I used to make fun of how people in anime shows would put their hand behind their head when embarrassed. We used to wonder: where did that come from, I can't imagine anyone in real life doing that, it's too uncomfortable. Imagine my delight when I found out they do that in Tollywood too! 


Even today so many Indian films have some love story or other at the base of all conflict. And there are more girlie anime shows about the tribulations of teenage romance than we can count, so on that point I am sure we don't need further proof. The best part is that we can even identify a shared preference for the love triangles! Nothing like a good old love triangle to keep things spicy, right? Well from the classic Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (link to trailer) to the fifth season of Sailor Moon (link to trailer) there seems to be a long way, but unrequited love is the Scotty that will beam us up from one to the other in no time at all. And just so we're not mistaken in assuming that it happened only in the olden days, the romantic triangle was also alive and well in a very unromantic series like Berserk (link to trailer), or a very pragmatic political thriller like Raajneeti (link to trailer). Sure it may not be the focal point, but how many Hollywood movies these days play that card? Not very many...

Really! Special sound effects, funny faces, quick reactions, speed talking and bulging eyes, even the camera work that makes it look like the world fell on top of the character as a result of some shocking news. All there, baby, all there under various guises! We may not see them very often in Hindi films anymore, but they are alive and well in the South.

Of course last but not least on today's short list, how lovely that neither anime shows nor Indian movies are very fond of being true to life. There is a certain disdain for realism, a concept that is not perceived as a sine qua non requirement (though that is changing lately in both) and that certainly adds to the appeal. Who needs reality when one can be transported into a world of colour, fun and endless drama?

Truly, writing all this I wonder why did I ever stop watching anime? Oh right, I know: I discovered Bollywood and Tollywood dishoom movies and hey the music is so much better in Indian films. And did I mention they dance?... Eh... I guess I'll still give Ghost in the Shell a rerun every once in a while for old times sake...