Saturday, August 28, 2010

Stalker Movies - All Michael Jackson's Fault!!

For anyone who doesn't know, because of course the world needs to know this, I've been on a Michael Jackson kick lately (primarily for his dancing, but also revisiting his music and finding new favourites). Since I know it could be months before I manage to create the post I have in mind illustrating how his influence is still to be found even today, alive and well, albeit very stylized, in the most modern forms of filmi dancing across the Indian film industries, I have to settle for a different post for the time being. But that doesn't mean this one doesn't also hold a special place in my heart.

India's adoration for Michael, that penetrated film industries from the North to the South, just may have finally given me an answer to the tantalizing question: what is it about these stalker movies that makes them so appealing to directors, actors and audiences alike. You know, movies like Deewana Mujhsa Nahin, Arya (and to a lesser extent a few other of Allu Arjun's movies, why, Arjun, why???), Fida (thank God for the twist in this one!), and this is just what I've watched because they were starring actors that I will watch in absolutely anything, no matter how bad. (No links provided as I would advise anyone to stay far away from these movies, so I have no intention of promoting them on this blog.) There's also Dil Se (which has other merits, so I found enough reasons to love it nonetheless) and a few Shah Rukh movies that so far I have successfully avoided, and I'm sure many others that will never come anywhere near my DVD player. This theme was all the rage circa late 80s - early 90s in Indian movies.

Make no mistake, we're not talking the horror movie type of stalking, or the emotionally unstable type of stalking. No, we're talking about movies where the great guy with a heart of gold falls madly in love with great girl, but she just can't seem to see that she also loves him (but of course! How can she not love him? What's knowing someone before you love them in this day and age anyways? Isn't a man who obsesses over you the most worthy of your affection? Duh!). So she gets pursued and emotionally blackmailed in the most creative ways, until she finally realizes that she loved him all along, usually after some drama where he almost gives his life for her.

What on earth is it, I would wonder, that makes people think this is sexy, attractive or even acceptable? And while I still don't have the answer to that one, I finally found someone to blame it all on when I was watching the video to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" (off the album "Bad" - 1987).

Here are the lyrics:

Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
You give me fever like I've never, ever known
You're just a product of loveliness
I like the groove of your walk,
Your talk, your dress
I feel your fever from miles around
I'll pick you up in my car and we'll paint the town
Just kiss me baby and tell me twice
That you're the one for me

The way you make me feel
You really turn me on
You knock me off of my feet
My lonely days are gone

I like the feelin' you're givin' me
Just hold me baby and I'm in ecstasy
Oh I'll be workin' from nine to five
To buy you things to keep you by my side
I never felt so in love before
Just promise baby, you'll love me forevermore
I swear I'm keepin' you satisfied
'Cause you're the one for me

A pretty cool love song you'd say, right? Ok, except for the part where he feels that in order to keep her by his side he has to buy her things, but whatever, what do I care how Michael keeps his loved ones close. But other than that, I wouldn't mind having this song dedicated to me by my boyfriend.

The problem is, once we get to watch the video, we realize that he's not her boyfriend. Moreover, she's a girl walking alone late at night (and wearing waaay too short a skirt for that kind of neighbourhood, as much as I am all for short skirts, but let's not get distracted by these details), who all of a sudden has Michael and a bunch of hoodlums all over her. And, outrage of outrages, at the end of the song, much like the Indian film heroines, she gets with him!!

And for some reason, as I was watching this I found myself thinking: can't blame her! If I had a guy dancing like Michael after me I'd probably be inclined to give him the time of day too! And that's when it hit me! That must be what all those actors, directors and scriptwriters were thinking too: if it works for Michael, why would it not work for a hero? They can dance (some of them anyway), they can lip sync to some soulful passionate lyrics, they have the looks (most of them anyway), yes, there's no reason why it wouldn't work! Ahem... Except... what looks good in a flirty 5 minute video with not much talking, gets completely ruined for me in a movie where they attempt to attach concepts like eternal love, passion, soulmates and, get this, gratefulness to this type of "relationship". So no, what works for Michael, definitely does not work for everyone else. Sorry Aamir, Shahid and Arjun...

But you know what, that's ok, because now it doesn't puzzle me anymore, from now on I can blame it all on the Michael Jackson craze! And while this could turn into a debate about the chicken and the egg (or not even, because surely the two have less in common than I like to think) I am too fascinated by the similarities to subject it to too much scrutiny. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

God I love that song!...

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Stalin" - Not the Comrade, the Telugu Movie

I got to Chiranjeevi backwards it seems. First I fell (hard!) for the nephew, Allu Arjun, who is such an immense joy to watch whether he’s dancing, acting, emoting, making faces or just… doing nothing (though that hardly ever happens). Then I started watching the son, Ram Charan Teja, who I think has a lot to work on in the acting department, but his prettiness and excellent dancing skills will keep me watching his movies. Then came another hopeless crush: the youngest nephew, Allu Sirish: smart, funny and adorable – seriously, what is there not to love about him? Last but not least, The Man himself with some badass guest appearances in Magadheera and Style. And finally, my first full feature: Stalin. W00t! The good thing about this twisted road is that I already knew I would love the guy, it was only a matter of getting proof for it.

And sure enough I did. I get it, I really do get it now why he’s The Man. Actually, wait… no, I don’t! Because there is no rational reason for it since he’s no looker at all, at first glance: pudgy face, big dog eyes, an annoyingly shapeless moustache and hairstyle, body rounded on all possible corners, no, definitely not my idea of a charmer.

On top of that, since this is a newer movie, his dancing ain’t all that either. Coming from the peak of Allu Arjun fandom, I’m not easily impressed anymore, even though I know I’m being unfair to the man: he is in his 50s after all (and I am more than willing to have my mind blown and eat my words on this one).

Even so, I have to admit there is definitely something something there…

If I had to put my finger on it, I'd say the most notable feature that distinguishes The Man from the other Tolly and Kolly Boys is that when he’s being badass, it’s no joke. He’s not hot and badass like Prabhas, or cool and badass like Mahesh, or cute and badass like Arjun, or even virile and badass like Vikram. No, he’s just seriously Badass. So when he comes into the frame punching someone’s dentures all the way to Teeth-heaven, you buy it. No choice, no distractions. And did I mention he wears the coolest footwear too?

Back to the movie: this is Tollywood, so the plot is not much different than the usual fare, though better than most: superhero of the hood, righter of wrongs and chief of the swoon-inducing brigade, we are introduced to Stalin (who was named thus because his father was a hardcore fan of communism, which, coming from an ex-communist country myself I found absolutely hysterical) and his hardcore mother through the innocent eyes of a village girl who comes looking for a job. What job, we never get to find out, but we get distracted soon enough by the heroine, played by Trisha who does an excellent “job” dancing in fantasy songs with Chiru every 20 minutes or so, which is definitely something that I would pay her for.

Namak: Isn’t it a bit creepy that he’s in his 50s and Trisha is a 20 something?
Dolce: You know, I know I should find it creepy, but for some reason, I don’t. He seems sort of ageless to me. Doesn’t look young, for sure, but he doesn’t look that old either…
Namak: Ahem… You really scare me sometimes…

The rest of the plot revolves around some personal vendetta lead by the chief bad guy played by Prakash Raj with a ridiculously delightful wig, as well as a remake of sorts of the movie Pay It Forward (same concept anyway, though I'm sure director Murugadoss will deny it).

Prakash Raj in one of his funniest (unintentionally) avatars

Stalin is hardly a rowdy like most heroes these days. In fact he has made a mission out of helping people who cannot help themselves, so he writes exams for two girls: one is blind, one lost both her arms in an accident. And while this situation could easily get either filmi or grotesque, it really doesn’t. Probably because the two girls do an excellent job in coming across as real people. The scene where one of them has to go in the street and beg passers-by to help her write her exam (because Stalin was writing the other girl’s at the same time) is extremely emotional. As is the scene showing the consequences of people’s failure to help her.

And how easy would it be to fall into the trap of overindulging in melodrama after these two moments? Well, again, to my great surprise they don’t. The highlight of the movie for me is the subsequent scene where a group of crippled boys are racing in a school event and one of them falls down during the race. I refuse to ruin the scene for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but it is very touching.

Dolce: I don’t see how you would fail to be touched by such a moment. In any movie.
Namak: Actually, I usually have a very hard time reacting the way I am supposed to when a movie shows handicapped people. For example in Taare Zameen Par during the title song I was cringing the whole time. I knew I was expected to become emotional, but something felt fake about it, like those children were put on display to sensitise me, they were used to manipulate my emotions. And that doesn’t fare well with me.
Dolce: Blasphemy! You did not just say that about an Aamir Khan movie!
Namak: I did, as a matter of fact. I love TZP just as much as the next person, but that song had no business being there except, as I said, to manipulate the viewer. And if you’re going to manipulate me, you have to be a bit more subtle than that.
Dolce: I’m not sure I want to know you anymore, that’s a heartless thing to say.
Namak: Well, too bad, you’re stuck with me at least until the end of this post.

Back to our scene from Stalin, what sets it apart from other similar situations is that we are not shown this race to feel sorry for these kids. Quite the contrary, we are expected to cheer for them and learn from them, and that I can empathise with.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, my movie experience was enhanced (and to a certain extent ruined at the same time) by another scene towards the end where a crowd of some thousands of people is shouting the hero’s name. Had his name been another, it would have been a very touching scene. But because the writers decided to baptize him after the best known Communist leader, the above situation felt so quintessentially wrong that it made me laugh hysterically, while also transporting me 20 something years back to my childhood. So you could say I enjoyed this scene… for all the wrong reasons.

And speaking of scenes I enjoyed, Chiru's entrance is as always, worth a mention. If there's one thing Tollywood kicks everyone else's butt in, it's OTT character intros. Pure adrenaline rush! I have yet to find one that doesn't get me to cheer on my couch!

Funnily enough I realize I have managed to name less than a third of the reasons that make this movie well worth a watch, but for the sake of concision, I'll just end this saying: take my word for it!

On the whole, Stalin was like a platter of assorted gourmet cheeses: a lot of different tastes, that don't necessarily all belong together, but each one delights you in its own way. You'll definitely remember quite a few of them at the end of the tasting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Varudu & Vivah - To Arrange or... To Arrange

The topic of arranged marriages... much debated and much hated in Indian movies of the past decade. And yet here are two movies, one from Bollywood (Vivah starring Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao), and one from Tollywood (Varudu starring Allu Arjun, Arya and Bhanu Mehra) that try to show us all the reasons why arranged marriages are not to be dismissed as traditional crap. Or do they?

First of all it's interesting to note that neither of these movies actually deals with the arranged marriage per se, but rather with the arranging part and then the love at first sight between the girl and the boy getting married. So the issue of love after marriage never comes up, except in conversation, and it's replaced by love just before (or during) the wedding ceremony. Ironically enough, a movie like Arya 2 makes a stronger case for love coming after "marriage" through a couple of well placed blink-and-you'll-miss-it dialogues between Arya and the bride's grandmother. But I digress...

Exhibit Number 1 for love at first sight, during their first meeting:

And Exhibit Number 2, during the wedding ceremony (the whole song is worth a watch, but what interests us starts around the 7:00 mark):

The second fascinating observation for me is that Varudu was the first official flop in Arjun's career, while Vivah was the first big hit (and a much needed one) in Shahid's career after his debut. And as per usual, I fail to understand the audiences that made this happen because I loved Varudu and hated Vivah. Despite being a huge fan of both lead actors. In fact I have to apologize in advance as I confess: I have not watched Vivah in a while, so there may be slight inaccuracies in my review, my memory is not what it used to be...

So... the plot. Since it's very similar, I'll go over it quickly for both movies, as I'm more interested in getting to the part where I figure out why one rocked my world and the other one bored me to tears. Young and eligible cool city dude is asked by the parents (or the one parent in Vivah) to think about marriage. In Vivah the bride has already been found, in Varudu cool city dude asks to be found one as he is incapable of finding one himself (even with women throwing themselves at him like rice at a married couple from the very first scene).

Dolce: That's a bit harsh, don't you think?
Namak: I know, but remember we know a couple of people in real life who have reached the same conclusion and have turned to their parents to find someone for them, so maybe not so far fetched after all.

Right, back to the plot. In the middle of the wedding joy/ right after the wedding, something happens with the bride. And I won't reveal what, suffice to say it is a life altering experience that puts everything in balance, and that will be the true test of the groom's short lived but hopefully strong enough love.

So with a premise so similar, what makes these two movies so different? What makes one a flop and the other a success? Charming leads, nice chemistry, wonderful costumes, what gives?

Dolce: Well, for starters, there's no dancing in Vivah.
Namak: Sure, that's true, but there's no dancing in many Hindi movies these days and I still like some of them. Granted the songs in Varudu are pretty spectacular so it automatically gets points just for that. But what else?
Dolce: Um... the leading lady is boring and has no personality.
Namak: Well, she is boring, I agree, but we don't see much of the stronger lady in Varudu either, so that can't be it.
Dolce: Oh, oh, I know, I know! Vivah didn't have Arya!
Namak: Aha, you may be on to something there!

One of the greatest things about Varudu is that it has a wonderfully over the top villain. In fact so great that he could easily be on the list of Top 5 Villains of 2010.
Take a look and tell me: can a villain be more badass than this?

Really, can the jealous auntie from Vivah even compete with this on the entertainment level?

But it's not just the villain. It's also the way the story is paced. Vivah has people sitting around the table and talking for a good 70% of the time. Another 40% is the soon to be bride and groom batting eyelashes at each other. The 10% that is the difference is time when both the talking and the gazing are happening.
In the same amount of time time, Varudu has 5 and a half fights and 4 songs while still managing to get the people around the proverbial tables to do their talking. Granted, it gets stingy on the coy glances, but makes up for it with an oddly placed but still very enjoyable kissing scene. Efficiency, I tell you, efficiency!

Actually, one of the few coy glances is well worth the wait.

Namak: Now before you get all mushy on me, don't forget the CGI!
Dolce: Ah yes, the crazy fake CGI. Loved it! But, to be fair, I also enjoyed the sets in Vivah quite a bit.
Namak: It's ok, Vivah made up for the realism of the sets by having a ridiculously implausible plot twist.

Indeed, there's that too! A movie like Varudu can pull off a series of crazy plot twists (or plot holes, if you prefer) because it goes with the rest of the wacky mood of a film that makes it clear it doesn't take itself too seriously. Vivah on the other hand spends the first hour or so building this realistic scenario, to then ridicule it by inserting an intelligence insulting plot twist. And that just doesn't fly.

Namak: Ok, stop just for a second here. I think we're making it sound like Varudu is a great movie and Vivah is not even worth the roll that it was recorded on.
Dolce: Yup. And?...
Namak: Well, that's not exactly true. Varudu has plenty of issues too, and Vivah has its share of nice moments.
Dolce: Whatever. One is fun the other is not, that's all that matters.

Right... I suppose that is what it comes down to: Varudu is a fun ride, if not always smooth or logical. Vivah for all the oodles of charm of Shahid and Amrita holding hands, misses on the fun front. Big time.

Do they both also make some interesting social commentaries and some excellent points about the institution of marriage? Yes, they do. But if I can't keep my eyes open long enough to get to them while watching Vivah, then that's a waste of a movie in my book.

Vivah and Varudu are like Havarti cheese. The regular no-name kind is about as boring as chewing on a mouthful of air. The spicy version on the other hand, infused with with some yummy herbs and hot peppers has the much needed oomph to make it into my shopping bag every once in a while.