Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sita and Ram - That Ideal Couple-Shmuckle Thing

Very few stories in the world seem to be referenced as often as the Ramayana, which could be because of its age, although I prefer to attribute it to its versatility. Also, by the end of this essay I will likely find one more probable cause for it.

I only started reading the Ramayana (in an old 5th hand translation, so I'm sure much of its meaning was lost on me) because of all the films that are based on it or that draw parallels with it. Not to mention all the songs that talk about Ram and Sita! Yet no two movies "inspired" by it were the same, so I got to the point where I just wanted to know: ok, what the heck is the original story? Well, not surprisingly there are many original stories, so many in fact that I could not find a summary to post here and spare myself the trouble of describing the version that I read. Heh...

To make a long story short (and please help me out with a link if anyone knows of a good short synopsis), Valmiki's Ramayana (the version I read anyway) sees Sita kidnapped by the demon Raavana who keeps her captive in Lanka while trying to convince her to be his wife. Sita keeps pushing him away firmly convinced that her true husband and master Rama is on his way to rescue her. She is right of course, and he does come to save her, but after Raavana is killed, Rama tells Sita that he cannot take her back because she has lived in a stranger's house for a whole year and it is not acceptable for him to take her back. Sita then orders a fire be built as she would rather be consumed by fire than live knowing that her husband and God doubted her. However, the god of fire refuses to take her thus proving her purity to Rama who then admits that he knew she was innocent but required proof for anyone else in his kingdom who would doubt it.

The last book of the Ramayana is not universally accepted as part of the story, but of course, consistent pagan that I am, I find it quite relevant. Sita and Rama return to Ayodhya and here again the commoners start whispering and making accusations, so Rama asks the pregnant Sita to leave for the good of the people and the kingdom. She does and in the forest she gives birth to two twin sons. Years later, Rama encounters his sons and is told their story. He then asks Sita to be brought back, but upon her return, he feels that she should once again clear everyone's doubts and go through the trial of fire. But this time she won't. While lamenting her fate she calls to her mother, The Earth, to swallow her. Rama never remarries and continues to rule righteously over Ayodhya until the end of his days.

One thing I am not here to do is discuss the Hindu scriptures, as much as I am interested in finding out more about them, so I will take the Ramayana version that I have read at face value without debating the many aspects of it that I disagreed with. That is better left to scholars. What I am here to talk about is films that use the theme of kidnapping and what happens to Sita after she get rescued.

I don't watch many movies from the 80s and the 90s, which is a shame for this particular topic because I bet there is a wealth of references in those, what with 9 out of 10 films being love stories in those decades. But even if I restricted myself to the 2000s there is still a cornucopia of references and interpretations, perhaps more than it would be fit for a religious story.

Before I even get to the films I can't help but point out that most mythical pairs of lovers are given a pretty straight-forward treatment in modern films. Take Romeo and Juliet for example: from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet the story stays pretty much the same even if the post-modern coating tries its best to make the latter look like a new story.

I swear I tried to resist posting a gratuitous shot of DiCaprio, but I can never win this one...

Or if we go further back in time to Tristan and Isolde, every modern adaptation has them going through the same trials and ending in the same place. Orpheus and Eurydice are yet another example of mythical lovers whose fate has been reenacted many times (we won't count Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, because the connection is loose at best) with virtually the same result: why Orpheus, why did you have to turn? Yes, we know, because there would be no story otherwise. In the Bible there are few couples that can be seen as ideal lovers, with Adam and Eve being anything but ideal, and at any rate they are seen more as parents and family heads than as lovers. And then of course Samson and Delilah as famous a pairing as they are, would have some serious trouble if they applied for the "ideal couple" designation.

One thing is for sure though: whether we see these stories on a theatre stage, at the opera, on celluloid or on paper, the narrative follows the original story with enough fidelity to reassure us of the immortality of each myth.

However, not so with the Sita-Ram story. The more films I see referencing the Ramayana (even if not always openly acknowledging it), and specifically the love story part of it, the more twists and turns the original story takes. Out of the 8 movies I chose for this post, only one follows the story somewhat closely, but even that one adds its own footnotes thus giving it a whole new meaning. Which is somewhat baffling because in a society as irreligious as ours one would expect to find all kinds of reinterpretations of myths all over the place, while India strikes me as more conservative in the way of Gods and religion, and yet they come up with the most surprising... do I dare call them blasphemies?

Sure it's debatable whether or not Sita and Ram are seen as ideal lovers, and enough Desi people have told me that they are not, but from where I'm sitting, getting referenced in every other song about marriage and in every other movie about marital bliss puts them pretty high up on that pedestal.

And before I move on, because I always try to make sure there are no spoilers in my reviews, this paragraph is here to warn you that THERE WILL BE SPOILERS GALORE in this post for every single one of the movies mentioned. And the reason for that is: most Sita-Ram inspired stories follow the same pattern, except at the end. Here's a closer look at each of them in no particular order.

Khal Nayak (Hindi, 1993)

I have no idea why I even watched Khal Nayak all the way to the end, I suppose it was some sort of challenge I gave myself, but since I watched it, I was not going to leave it out even if it's from a decade I had no intention of including. Khal Nayak tells the story of Ballu, a criminal who has so far managed to escape justice every time. Ram is the head of the secret police (so secret in fact that he gives statements on TV regularly) who is on his tail. Ganga, played beautifully by Madhuri Dixit, is a jail supervisor and Ram's girlfriend, who decides to go undercover and join Ballu's gang to bring him to justice. After many (read 3 hours worth of them) over the top scenes and ridiculous displays of villainy (usually punctuated by fake cackles and menacing zoom-ins of the villain's face), Ganga ends up rescuing Ballu from an encounter with the police, because she has discovered the human being under the mask of the villain. However that labels her as a traitor and lands her in jail.

Ram, despite knowing her to be innocent, is ready to bow down to justice (much like the original Ram to the "justice" of his people) thus betraying her trust and their love. In this version of the story it is Ballu, the villain, who turns himself in and stands up for Ganga's purity in a speech that references the Ramayana more than once.

Tendencies to humanize the demon Raavan appear quite often in films, which is not very urprising considering there are apparently scores of interpretations that see him as a great leader of his people and a very learned man.

Pinjar (Hindi, 2003)

One of the most heart-breaking stories in Hindi cinema, at least for me, Pinjar revisits the Sita-Ram story over the backdrop of Partition. In this one, Raavan is Muslim (Rashid) while Sita and Ram are Hindus (Puro and Ramchand). He kidnaps her to settle an old family feud, almost against his own wishes. When she finally escapes after days of being locked up, she is rejected by her parents on the assumption that she has been raped.

Even if she hadn't been, which they are willing to believe, her honour is now tarnished and theirs along with it.

Puro must sacrifice herself for whatever is left of the name of her family, and for their lives which would be in danger if they took her back.

Leaving aside the moral issues that the parents' behaviour raises, the film succeeds fabulously in showing the gradual acceptance of her situation in a Sita forced to go back to Raavan as her only chance of survival.

Years go by and Rashid cannot come to terms with his sin, so he does everything in his power to make things right, even across the dangerous riots and curfews spawned by the recent Independence / Partition conflict. The ending is one of the most beautiful and heart draining moments that Bollywood has ever given me. I'm sure whoever has seen it will agree, and whoever has not... well, they're really missing out.

Lajja (Hindi, 2001)

A film that talks about the place of women in modern society via three women who are not really connected to each other that the main character meets. The main heroine, Vaidehi (Manisha Koirala), is an abused wife who runs away from her husband. Along the way she meets other unhappy women and puts together a very unflattering image of the woman in the Indian society. A great idea, very poor execution.

All three women in this film have one of Sita's names, but Janaki (Madhuri Dixit) is the only one where the side of the story that interests me is complete. She is showered with gifts and attention from the older owner of the theatre which effectively invites the jealousy of her chosen one,  the father of her unborn child. In the form of a play (they are both theatre actors, which makes this a play within a play within a movie) Janaki is asked to go through the trial of fire to show that "Raavan" has never touched her and she bluntly refuses.

She sees no reason to prove her innocence in front of a husband who does not trust her.

The audience cannot accept a Sita who will not take the agni pariksha, so Janaki is promptly trialed and condemned by the public who attacks her, thus causing her to lose the baby. She does not resemble Sita in her resentment of Ram, but she does resemble her in the will to raise her child/children by herself and be both mother and father to them.

Sita Sings the Blues (USA, 2008)

The animated Sita Sings the Blues is a groovy, jazzy retelling, definitely the most modern interpretation, though a rather simplistic one (understandable given the fact that it is a 90 minute 2D animation). The fate of the abandoned writer is shown to mirror the fate of the abandoned Sita in clever montages of the writer's real life alternating with segments of the Ramayana. Sita thus becomes a symbol for every other woman left behind or neglected by the husband in favour of power or ambition. The narrators' interpretations of the Ramayana seems to favour that angle as well.

To them Ram always had a doubt about Sita which is why falling prey to his ambition to be the ideal king for his people is no hard work. But make no mistake, Sita is not absolved of her side of less-than-ideal behaviour either. At one point she is shown as a blood-thirsty puppeteer out to get Raavana killed, instead of saving herself. Nonetheless, Sita Singa the Blues is the most faithful retelling of the Ramayana, even if oversimplified, as it takes the story all the way to its finale where Mother Earth swallows a Sita who has essentially had enough.

Hey Ram! (Tamil / Hindi, 2000)

Hey Ram! is a tricky one because while it focuses on the Ram versus Raavan conflict (and turning the tables on it a couple of times too), there is very little Sita in it. By the way, this is the article that prompted me to watch this movie and include it in this post, as it may not be evident at first glance that the film even has anything to do with the Ramayana (at least it wasn't to me). The Sita in this story is about as passive as the Sita in the Ramayan, though to be fair, the fact that she is murdered somewhere in the beginning during the religious riots in Calcutta has a great deal to do with that. Nonetheless, she is instrumental to the plot on the one hand because the memory of her murder is what motivates Ram Saket throughout the entire story, and also in a more active role she comes back as a vision just as Ram is chosen to fight the demon (in this case Mahatma Gandhi) to make sure that he does not stray from it.

One could say that this is the most blood-thirsty Sita we have seen, even though she does not have an actual physical presence in the story.

The parallels however stop here because the rest of the story focuses on partition and on Ram fighting his demons.

Khuda Kay Liye (Pakistan, 2007)

Khuda Kay Liye has to me the most interesting treatment of the original story, a very unexpected one even if not entirely realistic. Mary, the daughter of a devout Muslim living in England with his white common law partner (right, well, the word "devout" only applies to his expectations for his daughter, he is clearly exempt from any kind of laws - of Islam or otherwise), gets tricked into going back to Pakistan where she is forcefully married to her cousin, a radical Muslim. She is in a very dangerous and remote part of Pakistan, so escaping is virtually impossible. During her 2 year captivity she makes friends with the women of the household but she is also raped and impregnated by her now husband.

She goes from being a bundle of energy and optimism to an empty shell kept alive only by thoughts of revenge and by her baby.

When she is finally rescued by her British fiance, she does her own killing of Raavan by bringing her husband to justice. However, when all is said and done and justice has been served, she takes the surprising decision of going back to the village where she had been held captive. She doesn't think she is the same person that "Ram" loved before, the captivity has changed her. This is the first Sita who never even gets to the trial of fire because she has trialed and convicted herself long before that. Considering one of the central themes of the film is broken spirits, this ending is appropriate, showing us a very down-to-earth Sita, stripped of all her Godlike devotion and indulgence, just a woman who has lost all hope in mankind.

Raavan / Raavanan (Hindi / Tamil, 2010)

Mani Ratnam's recent venture, Raavan / Raavanan, shows us a less celestial side of Ram, in the shape of Dev, a police encounter specialist (so a modern version of the killer of demons). This Ram is not the type to just bow to his father's wishes, which is probably why he has no other father than the IPS uniform. Nonetheless he goes to war in order to find his loved one, and is helped or hindered along the way by characters that mirror (some more faithfully than others) the secondary characters in the Ramayana. This one too turns the tables on the traditional characters and presents us a Raavan full of humanity and pain against a Ram full of hatred and ambition.

The twist, because of course there must be a twist, comes after Ram recovers his Sita (Ragini) and accuses her of impurity, knowing that this will push Ragini back towards Beera (the Raavan of our story) in a search for answers. In this version of the story, Ram believes Sita, but decides to use her to reach his goal of killing the demon. Much like in the original story, that proves to be his undoing and he loses her to his ambition.

Varudu (Telugu, 2010)

The only film I have so far seen that takes the sensible approach on the topic is the Telugu movie Varudu. When his bride gets kidnapped by an evil suitor and the parents are ready to give her up as damaged goods, Sandy the groom announces that it makes no difference to him if her honour remains intact or not, she is still his wife.

Luckily nothing happens to her because the villain, much like Raavan in the original story, turns out to be a softy at heart and gives her some time to think. I always said that a more determined villain, who does go through with his evil plans, would make a very interesting, albeit commercially doomed, film.


It's interesting to note that most of these films, when the characters invoke Sita, the ideal woman, make it sound as if she accepted to put herself through the trial of fire, whereas that does not seem to be the case in the text that I read. The first time she asks for death, but is saved from it by the Gods, while the second time she practically refuses. How is it then that lesser humans expect their Sitas to go through a trial that the Godess herself only took by chance and not by will? The movies had given me a much more submissive version of Sita, so I was surprised when reading the book to find out that she did in fact have more strength and pride than I had given her credit for.

The movies also tend to vilify Rama beyond the facts of the book. Rama turned out to be less than ideal in many other instances, but the first time around he does not ask Sita to go through the trial of fire, he merely accepts it as her wish to die. Which is of course no small transgression, but all his other failings seem to constantly give way to the big one that endured: the request for proof of purity.

Why is it, I wondered, that films seem to favour this interpretation then, when it's not even based on the facts of the book (if we assume that the last book is not considered part of the scriptures)? Why is it that Sita is martyred when she turned out to be a much stronger character in the book? Why is it that submissiveness comes through as Sita's strongest trait and self-righteousness as Ram's? And how can this couple still be considered ideal despite all that?

Many questions that may never find an answer as I am sure a desi's interpretation will be completely different than mine, or any outsider's. I'm sure I also missed a lot of subtleties that a Hindu would just take for granted. Which is why I never claimed to have my own interpretation of the story (ok, I do have one, but have no intention of writing about it).

But the fact remains that films keep going back to this story, over and over and over again, only to alter its ending. Could it be that the reason why it has been reinterpreted so many times is because its original form is far from ideal?
How ironic a conclusion would that be?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara Trailer

Just because the new trailer is out and I had a rant in me this morning, a short one with thoughts on my most awaited film of the year: Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara ("You don't get to live twice" in an approximate translation).

Piecing together the bits and pieces released so far, the story is about 3 young guys (Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol and Hrithik Roshan) going off on the trip to Europe they were supposed to take after college, but never did because life got in the way. Now Abhay Deol's character is getting married, and of course the subtext is that his life is over (but I'll refrain from rolling my eyes on this one), so this is their last chance to go off on a guys trip.

You know what, I won't refrain after all: are most women so insecure that they will prohibit their husbands from going on a "guys only" trip after they're married? I mean surely any woman will appreciate some time alone so what's the big deal about a guys only trip? You married him, it's implied that you trust him and really if he wanted to cheat on you, isn't he more likely to do it with someone in the office for example? And if it's not the cheating then what is the problem? That he's having fun without you? So let him! Are you not capable of having fun without him? Sheesh!

Clearly Kalki Koechlin's character (the fiance) will not get much sympathy from me as she seems to be exactly the type of woman who will nay-say any further attempts from her husband to have any freedom after they're married. Le sigh... Anyway, sorry about that, rant over, on to the film.

The guys set off to Spain and they will all participate in each dude's favourite extreme sport, which by the looks of it are: running with the bulls, sky diving and water diving. I could be wrong on these though. In the process they meet some people and presumably "discover themselves"...

I am very much looking forward to Zoya's second film, but I am always amused (and Hollywood does this too) at this myth that film makers seem to keep exploiting that taking a trip to Europe will change your life, or it will change who you are. Yes, Julia Roberts, that goes for you too! Really guys, let's face it, when 3 young studs go to Europe for the summer, they'll be drinking the continent dry, they'll be partying until the wee hours of the morning and they'll probably lose a good 10% of their brain cells to drugs and alcohol. And if they're lucky, they'll only gain 10% of their weight after all the paellas and empanadas. Oh, and maybe they'll see a few landmarks and museums. Trust me, I know way more than 3 of these guys. The one thing that they will NOT do for sure is discover themselves.

No really, does this look like one of those moments that lead to epiphanies?

Ahem... I didn't think so.

Somewhere deep down inside I am hoping against hope that this will be the movie to show that after 2 weeks of having fun and doing all kinds of crazy stuff in Spain, the three men go back to their lives in India with some great memories, perhaps a tad more light-hearted, but essentially the same people they were before they left. But... I doubt it.

Nonetheless, this continues to be my most awaited film of the year because I have complete faith in Zoya to give me a great script with memorable dialogues, some fabulous songs, benchmark performances and maybe, just maybe (see how I still haven't lost hope?), a good insightful story.

Plus, the pairing of Hrithik and Katrina Kaif doesn't look half bad:

And I'm always up for the Abhay Deol - Kalki Koechlin pairing.

As I am always up for Farhan Akhtar. In anything.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dear Blogger

Please give me my Asoka - Urumi post back unless you want to hear some serious whining and hysterics.

Many anticipated thanks!

PS: Think carefully, I have a well armed friend who is willing to fight you if you don't comply!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Asoka vs Urumi and Why I Adore Santosh Sivan

After seeing Santosh Sivan's Urumi on the big screen I kept struggling to put another DVD in the player as I had just enough time to watch a movie, but somehow it didn't seem right to wash off the sweet images hanging in each corner of my memory with some other film. Then I remembered that there was one I had been meaning to rewatch which would in fact enhance the memories instead of erasing them: the "other" Santosh Sivan historical, Asoka.

The film tells the story of the early life and deeds of the emperor Asoka, known for his cruelty and conquests, who would later renounce the way of the sword and travel the country to spread the light of Buddhism. It's not a very popular film and I am not entirely sure why. Maybe something to do with it being built on a (beloved?) historical figure most known for his good religious deeds? Maybe something about it being a modern love story in the guise of a historical? Maybe the fact that Shah Rukh Khan actually attempted a different role that did not please his fans? Maybe the inaccuracies which I would know nothing about? It doesn't matter, because from where I'm standing all these reasons are blocked from my sight, so I love it.

I may have gushed on other occasions about my love for Santosh Sivan's artistry, so I won't go over that again, but he is one of only a handful of directors who can make me watch the grass grow in real time without boring me for one second. Asoka was the first movie to convince me of that.

Urumi employs some of the same storytelling devices as Asoka, but it's a much simpler story: it's the story of a warrior out to fight Vasco da Gama's cruelty and with that, Portugal's imminent monopoly on the trading routes from India. I watched Urumi without subtitles and it is a very dialogue heavy film, so a proper review for it will come when the DVD *coughBluRaypleasecough* comes out, but for now I just wanted to put the two films in front of each other and look into the similarities and the reasons that make both of them so fabulous to me.

The Hero

Santosh's hero in Urumi is a powerful display of physicality. We all know that Prithviraj can act, but that did not come first on his list of requirements in Urumi. Badassness did. And that is just fine by me because a warrior needs to be valiant and manly first, and only then can he waste time with trivial dialogue. The character development did not find much room for growth because of that, so Kelu starts off as a perfect hero and ends up the same way. But this is not the type of story that calls for introspection or reflection, so we're happy to just see him slashing through the bad guys and being the perfect embodiment of the strong silent type.

In that respect Shah Rukh's requirements seem to have been the exact opposite. He does well with his displays of testosterone swordsmanship but they are overpowered by his displays of gallantry. Also, his evolution from teenage behaviour to ruthless warrior to finally grow into the man that was known for spreading Buddhism in India makes for a fascinating watch, and it definitely is one of the main reasons why Asoka holds a special place in my heart. A hero battling his demons can be just as engaging as a hero fighting his enemies.

The split personality and his inner conflicts make Asoka far more interesting a hero than Kelu, but that could also be why the film flopped, so I understand the need for a cleaner character. Also I wouldn't know if there were any dark shades in Urumi as I didn't understand any of the dialogues. I would be pleasantly surprised if there were.

The Heroine

Sivan's heroine on the other hand is half woman and half warrior, just the right mix of defiance and sexuality. She is vulnerable because she wants to, not because she's helpless. I can definitely see why the two heroes are attracted to her. Unfortunately for her, Genelia is at a disadvantage because she looks like an awkward teenage boy. This role demanded some curves, some grace, some poise which Genelia doesn't have, in other words she needed to be more woman. Not her fault, she just doesn't look the part. If a woman is to be appealing as a warrior, she must ooze fertility, just like the hero oozes testosterone, otherwise the effect is lost.

Genelia, in order to truly look the part, needed to be this:

and this:

and at the same time, this:

But she only manages to be... this:

Sigh... rather bland. But that's ok, because on the other hand Prithviraj was 100 times the hero that Shah Rukh the loverboy was not. Oh, a film with Kareena as the warrior heroine and Prithviraj as the fearless hero... What a dream that would be!

The Couple Dynamics

We had a lot more fun than we should have watching Kelu and Ayesha's scenes of... courtship (we called it foreplay) where they slash people's throats while staring longingly and menacingly into each other's eyes. It sounds strange, but I find that Sivan likes that kind of dynamic a lot in his couples. It's like love is a fight between the sexes and he will not take displays of weakness from either of them. Philosophically speaking, that's a pretty cool way of looking at it.

I noticed the same kind of relationship between Asoka and Kaurwaki who turn their love scenes into playful battles as well. Granted, that also made Asoka look more like a 90s romantic film than a historical and Sivan seems to have learned from that because he avoided making the same mistake with his main couple in Urumi.

Comic Relief

But flirting as we know it from modern films is not altogether absent in Urumi. It simply gets transferred to the other couple, Kelu's sidekick Vavvali (played by a delightful Prabhu Deva) and his bratty love interest Bala (Nithya Menon). They also serve as the comic relief characters of the film, which decidedly works a lot better than the poorly integrated comic side-plot in Asoka, involving some soldiers and a foxy narrator.

And speaking of relief, though not necessarily comic this time, Urumi also avoided using annoying children as part of the plot. Thankfully! If there is one thing and one thing alone that single-handedly made Asoka unbearable for me it's the little prince Arya. It took a lot of love for everything else in the film for me to get over just how annoying that child actor could be. Granted, the role called for heavy doses of brattiness and entitlement, so the blame does not lie entirely with the poor child actor, but sadly that does not make him more watchable.

The Visuals

Now let's face it, one doesn't always watch a Santosh Sivan film primarily for the plot. Because Sivan has been and will always be a cinematographer at heart, and he never lets us forget that. From the rich jungles of Before the Rains to the symbolically arid backdrop of Tahaan, Sivan's passion for photography never lets his stories down.

Unarguably his most beautiful sets are the great outdoors: lush, misty, humid, fertile with water and greenery. Santosh Sivan's landscapes always look so fresh you want to just take a bite out of them, he invents new colours and textures that nature never knew it had. He also has a knack for finding the world's most delightful waterfalls and using them creatively. The man could make a movie out of a single drop of water and I love him for that. This is one of the reasons I started watching Indian films to begin with and that fascination has not waned ever since.

From this point of view the less action-packed Asoka lingers more on the scenery especially in the first half where it is an integral part of the blossoming love story.

Urumi gets a more concise treatment, though just as beautiful and engaging. Because it's a faster paced story, the forces of nature seem to move faster as well: roaring waterfalls, storms at sea, whirlwinds of fire and smoke...

Every bit as delicious as one would expect from a director like Santosh Sivan.

It would not be fair to talk about the cinematography in Asoka and Urumi without talking about the impressive fights.

Urumi definitely has the better ones, not just because the choreography is a spectacle in itself, but because he combined a great deal of tricks: funky angles, slow motion shots, surreal leaps and twirls in the air, which made for some truly memorable scenes. On the downside, he cheated in this particular one by desaturating the colours during fights. It looked fabulous, there's no denying it, but the transitions were always abrupt enough to make it noticeable. For that reason, I have a feeling I will appreciate the DVD experience a lot more than the big screen because my TV will probably be a lot more forgiving.

Urumi picks up a few of the techniques essayed in Asoka and gives them the royal treatment, which is something I had always secretly wished for when watching the few sword fights and war scenes in the earlier film.

The Symbolism

Maybe because I've already watched Asoka a few times, but I like the symbolism in it better: from Asoka's black and white horses one for each side of his character to the war scenes where his dark side is preventing him from reuniting with a Kaurwaki whom he doesn't yet deserve; from the white ash smeared on the hero's face when grieving for his loved one to the peacock feathers that bring her to his memory every time; from the first conversation prince Asoka has with the monks straight through to his final recognition of the frailty of emperors and rulers... Asoka keeps giving me reasons to rewatch it in hopes of uncovering even more layers every time.

I'm sure Urumi's breathtaking visuals have their own hidden layers and meanings, but I couldn't pick up on them the first time around. The ones I did pick up on seemed too close to the surface and therefore not interesting: the shower of pepper on Vasco Da Gama's body; the gunpowder defeating traditional weapons just like in the present time story progress will destroy tradition; and of course how can we forget the sword itself, a symbol with many meanings: tradition, legacy, valour, manhood. And of course, by being quintessentially South Indian the urumi is a great antonym to the foreign invaders. Because Urumi is at the core an "us versus them" tale, no matter how we spin it.

Which brings me to the last point of differentiation between these two films, and that is the story itself. While Asoka is a journey of discovery, a voyage that takes the hero across experiences and emotions that will guide the main character to his final destination, Urumi is a much more straight-forward revenge saga. But where Urumi loses points on character development and sense of purpose, it gains them right back in tightness of pace and suspense. Because sometimes... you just want to see the hero triumph.

Final word...

I started off writing this thinking I would find plenty of similarities between Asoka and Urumi, Sivan's two great historicals. But as it turns out, they could not be any more different, which is a very pleasant conclusion to arrive to.

Now... on to wait for the Urumi DVD while pretending that I never heard of a shorter international version being in the works for festivals and Western audiences. And of course, on to feed my newly spawned Prithviraj crush!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

If Nine were Nau, a Bollywood Blockbuster

The other day I was having a lot of fun watching the Hollywood musical Nine and identifying all the places where it resembles a Bollywood movie. And all the places where Bollywood would do it better... er... or sometimes worse? While Bollywood has been changing drastically in the past few years, Nine would still work wonderfully as the generic Bollywood movie with nothing too progressive to scare away the crowds.


~~ Singing and Dancing! ~~

Not surprisingly a lot of the elements are already there: it is a musical after all, so there is plenty of singing and dancing out of the blue.

Of course if it were made in Bollywood the actors would not be singing their own songs, they would have professionals do it for them which would result in a vastly improved soundtrack with ranges beyond (or should I say above?) the ever-present and ever-boring alto that the Hollywood actresses presented us with.

I'm thinking Sunidhi Chauhan in one of her sexy bedroom voice tones a la Beedi and Thoda Thoda Pyaar for Penelope Cruz. Then certainly Alka Yagnik for the adorable Lilli (Judi Dench). For the role played by Nicole Kidman we'd definitely need a high pitch "star" who can only be Shreya Ghoshal, whereas the disillusioned Louisa (Marion Cotillard) would do well with a more mature voice, such as Rekha Bhardwaj.

Though to their credit, I have to compliment Marion Cotillard for the wonderful Take It All. However, I admit that my enthusiasm might be influenced by how perfectly the images punch the lyrics right into your stomach.

Which leaves the leading man, Guido... A mature, testosterone-filled voice that manages to also sound vulnerable when needed? Why it has to be Vishal Dadlani! And hey since in Bollywood it's not a rule for one actor to have the same singer during the whole film, I would have Atif Aslam sing Guido's second song because no one voices a broken man better than Atif.

~~ Item Numbers! ~~

While we're talking about music, Nine does Bollywood justice by also having two item girls: Fergie and Kate Hudson. Just when I thought I would never see an item number in Hollywood!... But they fit the bill perfectly: the two stars only appear for a scene or two before their number, never to be heard of again until the end of the movie, which would be unchanged (story-wise) if these songs were skipped. Perfect!

And come on, who doesn't recognize even a few Bollywood moves here and there?

I decided to not do a dream casting of Nine in Bollywood, so I will not speculate on who would best fit each of the item numbers, though I know for sure Malaika Arora Khan would not be suitable for either of them. Maybe Mumaith Khan for Fergie? And definitely Rani would rock Kate Hudson's poor excuse of a dance number.

But I said no dream casting, so... (No really, someone ask Rani to remake that item number just for kicks, she'd be amazing!)

~~ Star-studded! ~~

Nine is a multi-starer too, a concept that Bollywood has been playing with a lot lately with some success (two out of last year's top 3 BO grossers were multi-starers). Not that Hollywood does not bank a ton of money on star-studded films that brag more than they deliver, but one where they have to all sing and dance? Come on, clearly Rob Marshall watches Bollywood, why try to hide it?

~~ Fake Accents! ~~

For better or worse (read worse) Bollywood seems to have inspired some other smaller details of Nine too such as making half of the characters speak with a terrible Italian accent that sounds more like a "Jersey Shore wannabe, born and bred in New York for 3 generations but still trying to fake it (and failing)". Sorry Daniel Day Lewis, I know you practiced speaking Italian for this, but Dante would go on a blind dishoom-spree with a machete if he were still alive to hear you.

Ok, so it's not as bad as people speaking Hungarian and trying to pass it as Italian in HDDCS, but it's right up there with the white people in Kismat Konnection and Khuda Kay Liye.

~~ Where's the Soul? ~~

Still on the bad influences of Bollywood felt in Nine, unfortunately the Hollywood film also borrowed the concept of leaving the soul at the door when remaking a movie. Granted, Nine the movie is based on Nine the Broadway musical, which in turn is based on Federico Fellini's classic Otto e Mezzo. So not sure whether it was the movie or the musical, but the surrealist anguish that makes 8 1/2 a masterpiece must have drowned while crossing the Atlantic because it is nowhere to be found in Nine. In true Bollywood fashion the movie that was initially about an artist's parched mind, searching deep into his subconscious for what were once lush sources of inspiration, has become a simple love story gone wrong and a half-hearted search for redemption. Le sigh...

But before I ruin my mood by reflecting on Hollywood's power to turn anything insightful and cerebral into an empty spectacle, on to more fun things.


We've seen what Nine got exactly right in order to be a perfect Bollywood movie. Now the fun part will be identifying what Bollywood would change in order to make it a purebred desi production.

~~ The star! ~~

Well obviously they got the superstar part wrong! It can't be a woman, it MUST be Shah Rukh Khan! This is evident when one hears the director deliver these immortal words to his muse and superstar:

"Talk to the people who love you in our films, they’re not interested in my script! They’re interested in the way you turn your head, the way the camera looks past you to the moon... the way you smile a little as you cry, the way you really do blush for the camera...
Who even knows, but whatever else it is, it’s not my script."

Guido (Daniel Day Lewis) to Claudia (Nicole Kidman) in Nine.

How many women in Bollywood have so far gotten away with acting in absolutely anything, scripted or not scripted, without putting a dent in their fan base? Shah Rukh Khan on the other hand got away with a good 15 years of it.

So evidently, the superstar that this movie needs can be none other than Shar Rukh Khan. On the plus side, the scene where he is trying out costumes could be turned into something hilarious, while the scene where the tormented director confesses his yearning for his muse could be a form of art imitating life if we are to believe the rumours. Of course the director would look nothing like Karan Johar or else the meta-layer of the film would be too obvious and we'd end up with a law suit for slander. Unless the director is a woman which is a whole other can of worms so we won't go there.

~~ More Family! ~~

The family issues are already progressive enough with Guido's mother being dead (he is motherless!! Oh the horror!), but we'd make her a more simple woman instead of the diva halo that Sophia Loren is given. I'm thinking someone more in the lines of Ila Arun, with her feet on the ground and her hands deep in roti dough. As it is people don't eat enough in Nine!

~~ Ayyo Cheating! ~~

In order to be a true Bollywood movie, Nine would also have to sugar coat the whole idea of Guido being a womanizer and a manwhore in some way that would make it palatable to the Indian public. Now this would be harder to do, though as long as he redeems himself in the end and comes back, films like Salaam-e-Ishq, Life in a Metro and more recently Dum Maaro Dum have proved that he will be forgiven. To make it acceptable, he must only cheat with one woman and she must absolutely be a skank, preferably caucasian. Either that or much younger... and almost caucasian (thinking Kangana in Metro).

~~ Side plots! ~~

Also wondering if a terrorist angle or some sort of backhanded points about corruption can be added somewhere in the script? Maybe the producer can be a high paid politician laundering money through Guido's film? I mean why waste as perfectly good character when you can make him a symbol?

No? Ok at least some Hindu mythology references, something about Krishna? And a Muslim character for good measure? That could work... Yes, that could definitely work.

~~ Set Design ~~

Finally the last thing that Bollywood would change in a heartbeat: the sets!

What was up with that boring scaffolding backdrop? Is this any way to represent a country as the movie sets out to do? Are we watching Dogville or are we watching an extravaganza set in beautiful Italy? No, if we're going to have a set, it should be rich with eye catching fabrics, chandeliers, stairs that wind up, maybe some old ruins for added flavour and definitely, DEFINITELY bigger! An Opera House would do just about right I should think.

Of course the rest of the film would be shot in the exotic New York or Las Vegas because Italy is sooo 90s for Bollywood movies.

To be honest the film overall could have used some more colour. I realize that the original was shot in black and white but is that a reason to make black, white, silver and grey the only colours on the sets?

No, that won't do at all. I don't care how much they play with the lights or how symbolic the grey is for the black hole in which Guido finds himself, that just won't do. Give those girls some colour in their cheeks, give them some turquoise and lime green dresses and for crying out loud make those giant feather fans yellow or some lively colour!

Yes! Bollywood would definitely fix all that.

~~ The cherry on the cake? ~~

And because I would not be my usual sarcastic self if I ended on a nice note, the last little touch on the closing acknowledgements: no credit for the original! Mwahahahaaaa!!