Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Mark of Cain

"No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us." - John Steinbeck - East of Eden (Chapter 22)

What can I say, when I get obsessed with something, I get really obsessed. And one of my oldest obsessions has been the story of Cain and Abel. I followed it through various forms of art (painting, sculpture, novels, poems, plays, films), and in university my friends used to even make fun of my ability to sneak in a reference to it even in the most unrelated essays.

I had been thinking for a while that I will never find this theme in an Indian movie because the Indian culture is so attached to its family values that they would simply not build an unapologetic plot on the topic of brotherly jealousy or hate. Some films touch upon it, but most of the time it's only a tangent, and when it's not, a happy reunion at the end will make sure the family values remain intact.

And then I saw Prasthanam (hey, I already admitted my obsessive tendencies, I know I just blogged about the film, but this seemed to deserve its own post). Finally a film bold enough to deal with this theme maturely, without making any excuses, even if this is not the only focus of the story. I've been sort of obsessing over this for the past couple of days, and in this context, I went back to my favourite book, John Steinbeck's East of Eden. I must have read this book a good 20 times and it never fails to teach me something new. But before I start reading it again, I want to talk about something old that it taught me and that is connected to Prasthanam.

Brotherly love is as strong and present an emotion as brotherly jealousy, Steinbeck tells us, and it has been so since the beginning of time. And just like in the Bible this jealousy is caused by God preferring one offering over the other, so in East of Eden it is caused by Adam loving one son more than the other, and in Prasthanam by the parents transferring their own guilt onto the children (Mitra, the adopted one, and Chinna, the youngest one). Chinna is conditioned to hate Mitra not because he's the better brother, but because he appears to be the better loved one. Any child that grows up with the burden of not being wanted, of being a product of his mother's sense of duty and guilt, is likely to flirt with self-destruction. At the same time, Chinna's resentment of his half brother is not only rooted in a false sense of injustice over Mitra being adopted into the family despite not being Loki's son, it is also rooted in Chinna's own sense of not belonging. Chinna's hatred is as much about his father as it is about his brother, and that's what makes his character so interesting.

Similarly in East of Eden, it is Adam's behaviour towards both his sons that motivates Cal's actions. Cal is not a bad person at the core, it is his father's reactions that turn him. Just like according to Steinbeck's interpretation, God's rejection is really what drives Cain to murder. I appreciate both "East of Eden" and "Prasthanam" for making this distinction in the father's character, for not trying to take the easy way out in analysing a situation as complex as this one. And all the more interesting to find these nuances in an Indian film where there is a certain amount of sanctity attached to the fatherly figure, coupled with a tendency to brush off rash behaviour on the part of the young ones, blaming it on drugs and alcohol, or at best on their young rebelious age, assuming that the audiences will relate to that.

Which brings me to my second point.

"You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself" (East of Eden - Chapter 38).

I am particularly interested in how this theme has reached us, the audiences, across the generations. In the second half of the book, Cal and Aron are the Cain and Abel of the story, with Aron appearing to be the good son, and Cal the bad one. But as the story goes on, I always find myself investing all my emotions in Cal, and being a little resentful of Aron's perfection. In fact, Steinbeck has built these characters so skilfully, that under the pretext of praising the righteousness of the "good" brother, we are given the very reasons for loving the "bad" one.

What is fascinating to note when looking at the film and the book is the shift in the way black and white are mixed in the brothers. In East of Eden, Aron (Abel) is an almost immaculate white, while Cal (Cain) is made up of various combinations of greys.

The film however, does the exact opposite: Chinna (Cain) is painted all black, while Mitra (Abel), far from being flawless, is the one depicted in shades of grey.

Mitra - A chain smoker and a cold blooded killer, this Abel sure has grown up...
When Steinbeck created the character of Cathy (Cal and Aron's mother) he was afraid that people would not get her, because she is a demon, so foreign in her wickedness that the reader may not be able to understand her existence at all. The reader of the 50's that is.
With that in mind, isn't it interesting that Chinna can be a demon in a movie for the audiences of the 21st century without anyone worrying about his credibility as a character? Meanwhile, an Abel-like figure can't possibly be flawless anymore in order to appear real. Moreover, in the 21st century, any Abel must fight back because could we even conceive an Abel that doesn't?... I for one, couldn't.

Tangentially two other questions come to mind: have we, humanity and audiences, accumulated so much darkness in us that monsters do not seem foreign to us anymore? And in 60 years, how has the balance shifted so completely that if a character is flawless, we may reject it, but we have no problems believing one that is defined by hate and jealousy?

Surely that would make for another interesting discussion... For now I am more than happy with my discovery of the first film that does one of my favourite topics justice, so I end with a big thank you to Deva Katta.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Prasthanam Review

Politics, family feuds, goondas, drugs, love, fights, Prasthanam's got it all! But, let's face it, mostly politics. And broken families.

You get sucked into the imagery of this Telugu movie right from the opening shots: an old orange-hued house that breathes heavily with memories and a man walking around it. What happened to this house and the people in it is then shown in a black and white sequence. I appreciated the symbolism of the truck burning with orange flames over the black and white background, making the connection between the past and the present, a connection sewn with hate and revenge that seem to keep feeding the fire to this day.

The movie gets very confusing when it moves to the present time though. Forget figuring out who was campaigning against whom, I couldn't even figure out who was whose brother!! Sheesh! And let's not even go to the sisters, sister-in-laws and future wives, or any combination of the above.

Even so, some of the dialogues are so hysterical that they make you forget all about who was whose brother and sister. Like this one:
Hero: "These are your friends? They look more like belly dancers."
Heroine slaps hero's friend: "If you have no fashion sense, keep your mouth shut!"
Hero's friend: "Bin Laden attacked and Saddam got bombed! He made a comment and you thrashed me??"

I have to remember this one! I like it! As I liked pretty much all the banter between the hero and the heroine, some damn good chemistry there. Too little of it unfortunately...

Another random thing I really liked was that there was a Salvador Dali painting in almost every room of their house. Interesting choice of decor, I approve. I wonder if the Metamorphosis of Narcissus has any symbolic meaning in this particular room... Hm...

Namak: Hey, speaking of random thoughts, notice that on top of the "smoking is injurious to your health" warning at the beginning, they also put in a dialogue about how the son has taken up the bad habit from his father, on account of heroism? I like that, creative and subtle, it talks to the parents as much as it talks to the kids.
Dolce: Yeah, but it hardly gets the point across. This Sharvanand is second only to Mahesh Babu in terms of looking extra cool with a smoking tube in his mouth, so I don't know about other kids, but that dialogue would never work to prevent me from picking up the habit... Now excuse me, I need to focus on the hotness of that bearded look on Sharvanand.
Namak: Right, of course you do. Well, to be fair, he seems to have grown some acting skills too, along with that beard, so I won't complain too much about this new crush. (Though I would much prefer him silent, if I may be honest, he takes it away for one of the most annoying voices after Tabu.)

It's not just Sharvanand that does justice to his role, the rest of the cast is quite capable as well. And with well etched characters like these, you know you have a good movie in your hands.

The relationship between the two brothers in particular is worth a mention. Maybe it's because I am always interested in a good Cain and Abel type of setting, but I found their motivations and reactions to be the most fascinating: jealousy, love, indulgence, entitlement, respect, envy, guilt, each emotion comes into play at the right time and both actors showcase them efficiently. And they are all fueled by the parents' behaviour, almost as if the brothers had no choice but to grow up feeling the way they do. As their final confrontation approaches, you forget about breathing and sipping on your drink, and your muscles tense up because Abel has grown so much on you that you want no blood on his hands. And yet your sense of justice tells you... there should be no safeguarding Mark for this Cain.

Titian - Cain and Abel - one of my favorite illustrations of this scene

Then of course, for good measure, and to make sure the movie doesn't walk away with a perfect 10 for script and execution, there are also moments like this...
Namak: Did he... wait... did he just slap the bad guy with his sandal while screaming: "You're going to get cancer! Get cancer! Get cancer!"? That's just... hilarious!
Dolce: Um... I'm trying to find some justification for that one, but sorry, I got nothing.


[ETA: Bharath, a Telugu speaker, informs me (thankfully!) that the  English subtitles don't really do justice to this dialogue, so take it with a grain of salt.]

And while on the topic of wtf moments, for anyone who has yet to watch the film, I would strongly suggest watching this song first, and skipping it when it comes up in the second half of the movie. It's a cool song that suffers from the worst placement in recent history. Better watched separately, in my humble opinion.

Comic relief aside, parts of the film reminded me a lot of Raajneeti, to the point where I kept expecting Nana Patekar's sly smile to appear out of nowhere, but that could be because I just saw him in another movie and remembered how much I love that man. Speaking of Raajneeti, Prasthanam somehow manages to appear more realistic, and it's not because there are less people murdered with no consequences for the butchers (if anything, there are more killings, just better spaced out), but because the film is set up in such a way as to make that seem integrated in the characters' lifestyle. Had Raajneeti built on a similar set-up from the beginning instead of doing that 180 turn in the middle of the movie, I bet no one would have had any problems with the bloodbath in the second half of the film. Of course, I mean that cinematically speaking, not ideologically. I found myself having way less moral issues with Mitra than with Samar mostly because he seemed to have been brought up that way, and thrashing people was just ingrained in his personality and to a certain extent his culture, I didn't have to suspend disbelief to buy that side of his character.

Moral issues notwithstanding, Prasthanam also gets very dark around intermission, and unlike the dazzling filmi spectacle that is Raajneeti, this one will turn your stomach upside down with a few very believable scenes. Though it does commit the same sin as Raajneeti by overstaying its welcome. Still, with a few snack breaks and a song or two here and there to break it up, it manages to stay on the interesting side for most of the last hour. Especially since there's another black and white twist to the tale. Than than thaaaan!...

Hah! I haven't done a cheese rating in so long, I may have gotten rusty at it. Let's see... Prasthanam is like... Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's harsh and rough, and it won't cooperate when you try to cut it to size. But if you let it have its way, it's sure to make it into more than one dish on your table, as it has something to entice every taste. It may remind you of other cheeses, but the unmistakable flavour will ensure it holds on to its rightful spot in your memory. You may remember the bitterness more than any other taste, but sometimes, that's what makes a cheese, and a movie, special.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Petition on behalf of the City of Chicago

I recently saw Anjaana Anjaani and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, both filmed (at least partly) in New York. I never quite got the fascination with New York, and since I was recently in beautiful Chicago, I am writing this petition in favour of more Bollywood films being made in this extremely photogenic city. Below is a short and definitely not exhaustive list of reasons why Bollywood would benefit from shooting in a surely less expensive place than New York Chicago.

  • No Pankha-wale needed - CHECK
That's a no-brainer since Chicago is dubbed The Windy City. That should be the first clue that Bollywood movies would be right at home here. Think of all the staff you can save money on, now that they are not required to sit around operating fans in front of the hero and heroine for every important shot. That cuts flight, accommodations and meals for at least two staff (one for the hero and one for the heroine) that can be left at home.

Sure, there's always the danger of some Marilyn Monroe-ish accident happening to the heroine's dress, but that only means they will have to wear saris or very tight (possibly short) skirts, and both options seem perfectly suitable to me.

  • Shiny expensive looking apartment with great view that the hero could never afford in real life? - CHECK

  • Jaw dropping group song locations? - CHECK

All these people would provide the ideal white crowd dancing to Indian music for the first chorus. And if going for the more traditional look (though really, who does these days?), Chicago has plenty of Desis that would be more than happy to oblige.

The second chorus would of course move here because how cool would it be to have a Bollywood dance reflected in the Bean? I can't imagine anything more badass!

The third chorus could have people breaking away on the edge of the park:

Meanwhile the hero and heroine are flirting on the bridge:

Then we move on to one of the numerous cafes and restaurants for the next scene. Perfect! What next?

  • Romantic settings? - CHECK
I am picturing the romantic song of the film starting with this shot...

...and ending with this one (because I love symmetry and so does Bollywood)...

...while in between some lovey dovey (no pun intended) moments here...

and of course here:

That just-married couple kissing on the divider is the perfect example of why this setting would work wonderfully.

  • Train stations? - CHECK
Hero and heroine meet or part ways, or see family off, or mope for their lost love. Or if it's not a love story (hey, it's possible, don't nay-say it), this is where they would take the train every morning to go to their multi-million dollar company, before they teach us a lesson about honest work... or something like that...

Not my picture this time, so credit to the these guys for this one.

Of course there are also many highways overlooking the city as well as fancy bridges to complete the outside shots, so no need to worry about that at all.

  • Last minute needs? - CHECK
Chicago boasts a bountiful Indian neighbourhood where delicious food can be ordered for the cast and crew and in the event of the heroine's salwar-kameez getting ripped or her fragile bangles getting broken, anything can be resupplied easily.

  • South Indian films too? - Quick! UNCHECK!
Well... I tried to picture a South Indian movie in Chicago, but somehow the image of a truck full of rowdies waving machetes in the air while chasing the hero just didn't look right impressed over the architectural perfection of this intersection... Eh?

But that's ok because I remembered that I owe myself a post about my absolute favourite tropes in SI films, and the truck of rowdies is at the top of that list, so it will get its due soon enough.

Of course, the truth is I prefer Indian movies shot in India, but with so many NRIs all over the world, I can appreciate the need to branch out and offer milieus that are more familiar to the NRIs and look exotic for the people back home. So in that spirit, and all jokes aside, here's hoping for the next Bollywood movie filmed in America to feature one of my favorite cities around here.

ETA: I probably should specify that my petition is requesting films to be shot in Chicago and recognize it as Chicago. Chicago posing as New York doesn't count, just like Toronto posing for New York doesn't count. I want them to show the city in all its glory, not to shoot in unrecognizable corners and hope they will get away with it. Just in case that needed clarifying...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Girl-crush on Priyanka Scares Me...

Not because she's gorgeous and walking perfection from her lips to the impeccable shape of her legs... which of course she is.

Also not because she has grace, attitude and poise like not other... which of course she does. I can't imagine anyone else (still active in the industry) owning that catwalk like she did in Fashion, even if the movie had issues I can't even begin to rant about. I never would have made it past the first drugs and alcohol cliche had Priyanka not been the real show-stopper of the movie.

Surely it's also not because she's an exquisite dancer, who genuinely seems to enjoy shaking it even when she doesn't do very complex moves, and who's certainly not scared of looking goofy once in a while either.

Though I do wish she would dance more: I mean, is it really too much to ask for each of the 12 avatars in What's Your Rashee to have a proper dance? Sheesh!... Then again, the dancing is probably the least of one's concerns when thinking about What's Your Rashee, considering that was the movie when Ashutosh Gowariker decided he would do a tutorial for the world on how to best waste a good idea and some great talent (and by great talent I am referring to Gowariker and Priyanka, not to the man with less charisma than a box of Cheerios, also known as Harman Baweja).

Oh well, I'll always have Saiyaan Re.

But back to why it's scary that I like her so much...

Definitely not because she's a good actress, which she really is. No one, and I mean no one could have rescued the disastrous attempt at telling a story in Anjaana Anjaani. Calling it a story might actually be misleading now that I think about it. Better to call it a "kaleidoscope of fail", which actually kind of rhymes with the many failed suicide attempts that the hero and heroine expect us to buy. But Priyanka and Ranbir sold me that DVD the moment it sees the light of day, and it's because they're having so much fun with those roles that it is a joy to just watch them... act.

To think that I didn't even break my laptop while watching Krrish, though God knows even at the peak of my irrational and completely delusional admiration for Hrithik (which thankfully I have been cured of since) I didn't think that was a good movie. 

I even made it through Drona... which out of respect for her and Abhishek, I won't even start on...

And this gets me to exactly why having a crush on Priyanka scares me. Because the only good movies I have seen with her have been Kaminey and... um... uh... er... right, well, Kaminey. Ok, that's a lie, I also liked Salaam-e-Ishq, but despite being the most fun character in that movie, she had to share the screen time with another 11 actors and actresses, which makes it hard to call it her movie. Actually I suppose the same could be said about Kaminey, which means I have technically not seen any good Priyanka Chopra movies. Wow! That... is very scary...

Well... there we have it. Guess all I can do now is wish she would start putting all this talent to good use already. If not, I have some hope for Bluffmaster, but after that I am stuck with watching Pyaar Impossible and Love Story 2050, which is a pretty terrifying prospect.