Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pranayam Review

I'm sure everyone around here knows this by now: I've been starved for movies with grown-ups. Puppy love is all good and fine, but enough is enough already. So when I put Pranayam in the DVD player the other day I was ready for a good story with adults.

My excitement was toned down however when, before the movie even started playing, a collection of quotes about love got flashed on the screen, culminating with this one:

Oh man, I thought, what a tease! This will end up being yet another movie where the adult versions of the characters are on screen for something like 10 minutes and the rest of the story is a flashback of their puppy-love days. Cue eyeroll and brace self for the worst. (Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy Love Aaj Kal, but if you think of the epilogue to Rishi's story you'll know what I mean.)

Luckily, I was dreadfully wrong! Pranayam ends up being a story about grown-ups and yet, while being that, it still allows plenty of room for the cuteness of puppy love, for the thrill of watching young hearts take on the world, and even for a bit of the classic love triangle. And it does all that without ever putting the older versions of the characters in danger for screen time.

Not that you would want to underuse such talents as Anupam Kher, Mohanlal and Jaya Prada, but Indian movies have proved in the past that even greater talent can be sacrificed in favour of their younger looking versions. So on that topic I can only say: respect to Blessy for giving us a story about old people in an era when everyone else around him refuses to age.

Namak: Mercifully! Because in the younger version Anupam Kher looks like a 12 year old with a mooche!

Dolce: Aww, come on, he's all right. And all his filmi dialogues about rain are so cute.
Namak: Cute is hardly the word I would use. Cheesy maybe?
Dolce: Whatever. They get the job done, don't they? The girl falls for it.
Namak: Just another case of girl falling for the first boy whose eyes she looks into. Textbook filmi love-story. Yawn.
Dolce: We're over that, remember? We've accepted love at first sight as a legitimate plot device. Besides, luckily for us, this one turns out to not be the one true love as it is in most movies.
Namak: True. Brownie points for that. I'm always happy to see the idea that true love doesn't happen only once acknowledged by Indian film makers.

The story, in short, is about Menon (Anupam Kher) who comes to the city to live with his son's family after suffering a heart-attack. Highly independent and unaccustomed to being looked after, he takes to roaming about the city as if he were a young man. But danger is always closer to home than we think, so one day in the elevator he runs into Grace (Jaya Prada), who, as we will soon find out, was his wife 40 years ago. Also she is the mother of his son and had abandoned them when their son was very young. Or had she? The script keeps it a mystery, but what we do know is that Grace is now married to Mathews and quite happily married by the looks of it, even if Mathews (Mohanlal) is now half paralyzed and requires constant attention. Coincidentally, they all live in the same building.

The script manages a good deal of flashbacks quite elegantly, and events from the past surface one at a time, without losing sight of the relationship that is formed in the present between the three protagonists. Not surprisingly, we don't get the full story until close to the end of the film, and it isn't the most original story either, but by then we are so much more involved with where the characters are right now, that the past remains exactly what it should be: the past.

I'm all about the relationships in movies, and Pranayam definitely does not disappoint in that respect. Whether it's the relationships between the older generation and their grandchildren, or the husbands and wives, or the father-son dynamics, all the connections between characters come across as genuine and natural. And of course, the interactions between the three main characters are particularly well drawn.

You understand right away why Grace is married to Mathews because he strikes you as such a wise, mature man. On the other hand you also understand why she had fallen for Menon in their youth and why, apart from the son, there is still a bond there. Menon is full of life and optimism, he's an explorer even when tired or ill, it's a joy to be around him. Needless to say, it's also easy to understand why both men love/loved Grace, whose name describes her perfectly. A strong, good-hearted woman who had to make some tough choices in life but retained her warmth and her spirit. And, might I add with an incipient fangirl sigh: her beauty!

Dolce: Interestingly I didn't feel that the movie manipulated me in any way on the topic of the mother living away from her son for 40 years, and I'm not sure if that was just excellent storytelling, or if it was something they glossed over on purpose. 
Namak: Hard to say, I'd say the latter, but certainly unexpected from an Indian movie. Most of them would be throwing drama at the issue after the first scene.
Dolce: And yet Pranayam kept it smoothly in the background without ever asking you to take sides.
Namak: I wouldn't go that far, there are definitely sides being "proposed" to you, ready for the taking.
Dolce: Yes, but you always know there's more to it than meets the eye, so it doesn't feel like they give you a definitive ruling: she was wrong or she was right.
Namak: Or he was wrong / he was right...
Dolce: Precisely! "Everyone makes mistakes" seems to be their philosophy, but in the end, as Mathews would say "The past is just a bucket full of ashes."

Another aspect of the movie that impressed me on the sociological level was how well the script employs the "village's rumour mill". It doesn't take being Indian to know just how much appearances and "saving face" matter in the Indian society, and yet movies have recently moved away from focusing on this aspect, no doubt in an effort to showcase the younger generation's new-found independence. Which is fine too. Pranayam, however, boldly embraces it and makes it a part of the plot.

When the trio of grandparents starts forming a friendship, both families (Menon's son and daughter-in-law, as well as Mathews' daughter and son-in-law) get increasingly concerned with the rumours that are flying around about them in the neighbourhood. What a nice and refreshing role reversal from your typical scene with the parents scolding their teenage daughters for giving the family a bad name. Here it's the daughter who raises the problem with her mother.

Don't get me wrong, far be it from me to ever be on the side of the rumour mill, and anyone who has been around this space for a while knows my general response is "to hell with it!", but I truly appreciated how this story didn't pretend to exist in a vacuum and not only did we get the angle of the immediate family dealing with their parents' problems (or their grandparents'), but we also got the social commentary associated with it. Of course, what the main characters do and how they deal with it is another matter altogether, but that is a satisfaction I will leave to you to discover.

Namak: And this is not the only place where Pranayam uses a filmi trope. If you think about it the grandparents go through practically every act of rebellion we see nowadays in rom-coms about growing up: they sneak out for secret meetings, they take off on a roadtrip without telling anyone, they go drinking, they sing a song in a packed restaurant, they go boating, etc. 
Dolce: That's may be so, but because here we see these scenes from such a different angle, they seem fresh and endearing. It's only cliche if a certain category of characters does it. You change the premise and all of a sudden all the cliches get a makeover too!

Maybe it's true that there are only a few good stories in the world. But every once in a while one storyteller twists one up enough that it seems, if not new, at least intriguing all over again.

Last but not least, a quick word on the visuals in Pranayam. Two things stand out: the sea and the rain.

The story uses both symbols heavily but the excellent cinematography makes it look as if it's a different sea and a different rain every time. And perhaps that is the message of the movie too, that despite thinking we know something (or in this case someone) and have experienced it a thousand times, there are always new sides of them to discover. Or to remember.

"With each new wave the sea looks different", Mathews notes.

Pranayam (2011)
Director: Blessy
Starring: Jaya Prada, Anupam Kher, Mohanlal
Music: M. Jayachandran
Cinematography: Satheesh Kurup
Language: Malayalam

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

London Paris New York

Let's face it: there's no such thing as a realistic romantic comedy. Even the movies that rule the genre and have legions of fans who can recite all the dialogues and dance all the parts (Jab We Met, Hum Tum, Band Baaja Baaraat, etc) don't exactly make you exclaim: "this could happen in real life!". Relationships work differently in real life and most of them don't do a full 180 when someone bursts out saying "I love you" (if anyone does a full 180, it's usually to run away). And that's fine. Because whether we're watching a traditional love story or a modern day rom-com, the whole point is not to think that it could happen to you, but that it would be so dreamy if it happened to you. And yes, there is a distinction there.

Most romantic comedies take a core idea: opposites attract, long distance relationships, love at first sight, take your pick, and they build around it in a way that should at least ring true. Then the most important part is finding the characters that will fit in this story. Once that's done, the rest of the details are "window-dressing". If you bought the premise and if the protagonists make it come alive for you, you'll overlook a few details here and there that move the plot forward in an artificial way. But as long as the premise makes sense and none of the plot-turning events are too ridiculous, you're likely to enjoy it.

Personally I find myself more susceptible to buy core ideas that I know exist in real life. That's why, for example, you'll see me scoff at the "love at first sight" variety, and embrace the "long distance relationship" angle. I'll find "stalk her until she admits she loves you" creepy, but I will go completely gaga for "friendship turning into love" plots. To each their own. The idea that London Paris New York is based on is among the select few that work for me: I believe there are people you meet sometimes who leave such a strong impression that you will make life-altering decisions because of them long after they stopped being a part of your life. And I believe that you can have such amazing chemistry with someone that no matter what point you're at in your life, they can show up and turn your world upside down. Does it happen with someone you've only known for 12 hours? Probably not, but this is where you have to close your eyes a little bit and accept that for cinematic purposes time can be compressed. Then again, motivational speakers claim they can change your whole outlook on life in a an hour, so who be I to doubt it?

My rom-com logic is perfectly satisfied by London Paris New York: do I buy the premise? Sure, I've seen it happen countless times. Is there enough scorching chemistry between the two leads to make it believable? Hell yes! Is ALI FLIPPIN' ZAFAR!!! (sorry, I promise this is the last time I am being a fangirl in this post, but seriously, how fabulous is this man?) believable as the guy who could turn your life upside down? Oh, I think I already answered that.

And that's not even all of it! Beyond the lovely performances from both leads, the movie is also worth watching for the way it integrates Bollywoodness in three foreign locations without taking you out of the story (the two versions of Voh Dekhnay Main and Ting Rang are a perfect example of this), and for the cute dialogues that ensure there's never a dull moment despite the movie only having two characters for almost its entire length. And this, folks, should really be the end of my review with only one more thing to add: for full-on Ali Zafar deliciousness... just go see the movie! Words do not do him justice. (Oops, I forgot I promised!)

But... BUT. We're in the middle of Adam's Rib, so what better opportunity to focus a little bit more on the female character of this film and while we're at it, on its female director/writer.


What I loved the most about London Paris New York (ok, this will be a lie, we all know what I loved the most was Ali Zafar, but pretend you believe me) is that it takes the stock character that we see in every other Hindi film/rom-com, uses it, and dismisses it when it no longer makes sense. In the first phase of the movie, London, Lalitha is somewhere close to 20 years of age, and she does everything we would expect from a teenage-type girl: she refuses to kiss because it would make things complicated, she doesn't want to write letters because it would trivialize the relationship, she goes on and on about how she will change the world, she thinks she's got it all figured out. She's your typical idealistic 20 year old (slightly less bubbly than the stock character, but definitely with that air of innocence about her) who thinks the future is hers to shape and it's all within her control. Her decisions make sense as such.


In the second segment Lalitha has grown up a bit. She's still not mature, but she doesn't believe in fairytale endings anymore. She's been through a few disappointments and she knows to take what she wants when it's there rather than relying on a future that is as fickle as the weather in London. And most importantly she's grown up physically. She's not afraid to be touched by a man anymore, she's not afraid of her sexuality anymore. I should mention that my seat-mates objected to her walking around in Paris with a long sweater that barely covered her behind, but I took it as a sign of someone who is comfortable with her own sex-appeal (and more importantly someone who wants to SHOW a man that) and for once I didn't think it was just a gratuitous skin-show - which by the way, doesn't bother me, but I do recognize it when it's inserted there. (Ahem... as in the example below.)

While talking about this segment of the film, I read an infuriating review about the movie today whose author (a male film critic, not that it should matter) faults Lalitha's character for sleeping with Nikhil in Paris. Which ties in perfectly with my rant the other week about virginal girls in Bollywood: it's what people expect and when they don't get it, they protest. Why is it uncharacteristic for her to sleep with him, I ask? Is it so hard to believe that a woman can also give in to her hormones? Or that she would want to know what she missed? Why does the episode that precedes their meeting in Paris cancel out physical desire? Is it because we're assuming that as a well-raised tam-brahm she's still a virgin? Or is it because the Indian audiences are STILL (and yes, I totally meant to shout that) not able to accept that a bona fide heroine would do something as outrageous as giving in to sexual desire? Not sure how many women would NOT do exactly what Lalitha did, and some would do it ESPECIALLY because of the history between them, so based on that, I see Mr. Nahta's objection and I raise it a middle finger. And because I'm a woman and he's not, I win by default. Ha!

Oh, and while we're at it, how droll is it that in the above mentioned review there's no objection to the fact that Nikhil complains about Lalitha not giving him any satisfaction on the first night in London? By the way I found that scene hilarious and brilliant, so nothing against the scene, but you know, if we're going to ban sexual desire, can we be fair and ban it both ways? No, of course we can't.

I've never been one to praise women over men in a particular department just because they're women. If anything I have a hard time for example reading female authors for a variety of reasons that I won't touch on right now. But give some credit to the fact that a woman wrote this script. Give her at the very least the benefit of the doubt when it comes to knowing what a woman might or might not do in a certain situation. And in this particular venture I found the female character quite well-written. Yes, there is such a thing as women wanting to sleep with a man they're attracted to regardless of the consequences and yes, there is such a thing as physical attraction trumping all the rules and all the barriers you had set up in your head. And thank you, Anu Menon for acknowledging that!


We now get to the last stage of the journey, when the characters are close to their 30s (if not right at that age). They're done figuring things out, they're done dreaming about changing the world, they're done being unreasonable. And this section pleased me the most because it does something that Rockstar surprised me with as well, and while some may knock it, I think there should be more of it: the film trusts you as an audience to understand why the two characters are where they are right now. It doesn't spoon-feed you back-story, it doesn't show you a montage of how they got there, it doesn't tell you what they've been up to. It simply tells you that another 6-7 years have gone by and it's up to YOU, the audience to understand why both protagonists are now adults and why they behave as such. Were there regrets in these seven years? Was there doubt? Were there times when the two completely forgot about each other? Did they move on with their lives? Were there times when they were one step away from calling each other? Just let your imagination fly, Anu Menon trusts you to figure it out. She trusts you to know that people evolve and grow and learn from their experiences. And if you're not able to figure that out, or if you don't buy it... then I'm very sad for you, but here's the good news: Bollywood is still full of stock bubbly girls who never grow up, tailor made just for you! There we go! Now everyone's happy!


Most rom-coms are hard to take for me, my tolerance being zero for weepy melodrama and almost zero for contrived set-ups. When I fall in love with a movie that has either of those elements I put it down to the main couple just working for me. The idea that two people can click every time they meet each other despite being at various stages in their lives is what I would normally call a contrived set-up. And yes, I admit to being smitten by Ali Zafar and to loving Aditi Rao Hydari, but in this one I give all the credit to Anu Menon: I bought into London Paris New York because her characters are not static, they're different people from one segment of the movie to the next. Hence the way they click every time, the way they interact and relate to each other also changes from the time before. London Paris New York is not about the endurance of one love story (like in the unbearable Mausam), it's about two people falling in love with each other all over again every time. And that makes it a gem of a movie and a rarity in today's Bollywood!

(Oh, and don't forget: ALI FLIPPIN' ZAFAR!!!!!)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Grow Up, Bollywood Girls!

One of the biggest disadvantages of having a group of friends where everyone is 3-5 years younger than you is that you're always waiting for people to grow up. You keep making excuses for them and keep saying: they'll grow up when they get a real job, they'll grow up when they find a steady girlfriend/boyfriend, they'll grow up when they move out, etc. And there is some truth to that because that is usually how people learn responsibility and maturity. In fact, on the opposite end, the most telling sign that someone is refusing to grow up is that they will do anything (and I mean ANYthing) to not get a full-time job, or what we call a "real" job.

In a way, Bollywood is like these friends of mine: it keeps refusing to let its heroines (and heroes sometimes) grow up. In real life, if someone is responsible enough to keep a real job and live on their own, we also expect them to be emotionally mature. (Of course that expectation can backfire horribly, but that's for a different day to discuss.) But Bollywood, as I have discovered, doesn't like emotionally mature characters. It follows logically that they cannot have jobs (or if they do they're in the artistic realm), live on their own or make reasonable (read: mature) decisions. So... they don't.

We've already discussed that a fair percentage of the male characters have become manchildren (without actually getting to the bottom of why that is, but we might get there in this post), so it's only right to now discuss what type of female characters will suit these boys. Not surprisingly: girls! Not women. Girls. Sometimes (not very often, thankfully!) manic pixie dream girls and other times just girls in the process of growing up along with their hero. But girls nonetheless.

Look around at Bollywood movies from the past two decades: how many women can we count and how many girls? And of those women, how many are the heroine? Moreover, how many of those heroines end up with the hero? Three questions, each worth exploring in some detail.

By the way, as I was writing this I realized that this is a very a-typical post for me because I'm never big on women power. To me everyone is equal and no sex should be more equal than the other. But a few recent stinkers from Filmistan have made me a little fed up with all these cutesy bubbly teenage dream girls that Bollywood (and regional cinema) loves so dearly. And I realized that normal grown-up women have been a bit of a rarity lately. Hence my upcoming rant.

How many women and how many girls are there?

For a while there it seemed like Bollywood was going in the right direction with its female characters, providing some much needed relief from the whiny, spine-less love interests that populated the last decade of the millennium. And here mad brownie points go to Dil Chahta Hai for giving us not one but three female characters that despite being at different stages in their development shared one quality: they all had a level head on their shoulders. Then Southie remakes started happening. And Hollywood "inspirations". And then it all started going downhill again.

While it's understandable that a certain amount of innocence should go with the virginal ideal woman (according to Indian cinema anyway), it's incredible how often that degenerates into ditsiness and childlike behaviour. Even some of my favourite movies manage to slip into this cliche. I adored Dimple in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, but let's face it, mature is not the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe her. One of my favourite movies ever, Jab We Met, features another good example of innocence and airheaded-ness, despite a few well placed dialogues that manage to give Geet some depth. Her behaviour however is not exactly what we would expect from a grown woman. In another intriguing example Kaminey's Sweety is a strange mixture of determination and puerility.

And mind you these are the films that balanced it well and gave us some truly memorable, three-dimensional characters that I will always love. Most films out there either don't even try to give us a round character, or if they do, it reminds us of how we used to be at 15. This is, by the way, much much worse in regional cinema, which is probably why I'm so fed up with them.

Whether that innocence comes from having grown up in a warm family that has sheltered the girl from the evil world, or from simply being a carefree type of personality, the fact is it exists in far too many female character out there. And while I do understand the appeal of a sweet, wholesome, happy and (usually) virginal creature, there is something to be said in favour of a lady who has some knowledge of how the world turns. And who has some depth to her even if that means being manipulative or selfish. No? Too much? Ok, then at least a girl who has kissed a boy before and doesn't look like it's the most miraculous moment in her life when she kisses the hero. You see what I'm getting at here.

But evidently Bollywood does not agree because it keeps serving us these lovely wide-eyed caricatures of women who more often than not seem inspired by high school cheerleaders (or bookworms, depending on the story) rather than by real life women.

Of these Women, how many are the heroine?

This is a startling conclusion that I came to: a lot of times the female characters who seem real and who make mature decisions are not the main characters in Hindi films. Think of Jai's Swiss girlfriend in Love Aaj Kal. Think of Luv's ex in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Think of Tanu's best friend in Tanu Weds Manu. Think of Ria in Monsoon Wedding. Or Raina in Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl. All these secondary characters behave like a normal grown-up woman would in front of a tough situation. They don't call mommy, they don't cling to the hero like ivy to an old house, they don't give up on life. They do what any adult does: deal with the problem. (Or in Tanu's case, they deal with their best friend's problem.)

So this is where it gets really confusing now. I used to look around at all the different kinds of fabulous women that I know and wonder: why is it so hard for scriptwriters in Bollywood to create a character that feels real? Normal women walk around us all the time, why is it so hard to transfer them to paper and then to screen? Why the need to go over the top with these unnaturally bubbly characters? Or worse, come up with flat characters whose sole purpose is to look pretty in a sari and possibly fuel the hero's transformation into a real man. Now understandably if we're talking about a movie like Dabangg or Dhoom 2, we won't take offense at the flatness of the female characters, the movie is, after all, not about them. But why can we not have grown-up women in rom-coms? In love stories? In dramas?

Because it turns out that they can be written. They do exist and they do make it to the screen. Just... not as the heroine.

And the more I think about it the more if feels like I figured it out. In Bollywood where the love story is such an important element, a character who is already developed doesn't have anywhere to go. The whole fun of watching a story that's been told before (which most of the times is exactly what you're watching) is seeing how the characters change. So unless there's some sort of growth (and the growing up kind seems to be the easiest to handle), there is no satisfaction at the end of the journey. Unless, of course, there's action and sparkles and dancing in which case we really don't care about the character development.

Then of course there's also the issue of the fountain of youth which Bollywood is still looking for. There's no telling when it will be found, but in the meantime we're getting some practice with the kinds of characters that a forever-young actress or actor will need to play (ie teenagers). Though credit where it's due, Bollywood actresses are doing a whole lot better than the actors in choosing age-appropriate roles.  

And finally: how many end up with the hero?

A few movies have managed to elevate these independent, strong women from the secondary character status to heroine or at least the "other" heroine. I'm thinking about Dev D.'s Paro, Ishqiya's Krishna, Chalo Dilli's Mihika, Delhi Belly's Menaka, Aaja Nachle's Dia, Luck by Chance's Sona and to a certain extent Riana in Ek Main aur Ekk Tu. All women who know what they want and don't rely on men to build their own happiness.

But strangely, of all these, Delhi Belly is the only one where there is a possibility she will end up with the main hero. In all the other ones they either are never meant to be a couple (as is the case with Chalo Dilli), or they just don't end up doing the "happily ever after" thing for whatever reason.

Actually, it's not for "whatever" reason. It's for a very obvious reason: the hero is not likely to make such a woman happy. Whether it's because he's too immature, or because he's too self-centered, or simply because... she's just not that into him. Puns aside, could we even picture them together? In most of these cases, not really. And not to say that it's imperative for a woman to be in a couple in order to be happy, but... it doesn't hurt either.

Strong women, it seems, don't belong with chocolate heroes. Maybe chocolate heroes wouldn't know how to handle them. The nervous boy who is in love for the first time and doesn't even know it would be crushed by a love interest who isn't herself a shivering fragile lily. So the grown-up women get sidelined and in come the girls who will be more than happy to stick around through thick and thin holding a man-child's hand. The one-eyed leading the blind...

(Of course there are a handful of films where the independent, strong-headed heroine does end up with the hero, but more often than not, their love story is not the main focus. I'm thinking of the adorable Well Done Abba, the intriguing Paa, and the brilliant Swades. Too few... too few.)

The conclusion here seems to be that in order for us to buy the hero and the heroine being happy ever after, we have to visualize that they will evolve together. If the female character is a woman and the male character is a boy, it doesn't ring true to picture them still together in 20 years, which is really what we should think at the end of a good love-story. On the other hand if neither of them has to wait around for the other to grow up, and they're in it together, it's easier to believe that they will make it.

The bottom line...

Bollywood certainly has a firm grasp on this one concept: there is nothing more intense, more romantic and more adorable to watch than two people falling in love for the first time. In fact, because this first-love magic usually happens to us when we're teenagers, Hindi films have gone as far as routinely selling us characters in their mid-twenties who act like teenagers in the turmoils of their first love story (and no, it's not just the female characters, it's both sexes).

But here's something that Bollywood apparently has yet to discover: grown-ups fall in love too. And it can make for some pretty cool stories.

It's not that girls are not fun to watch, don't get me wrong, I love my bubbly energy balls just as much as I love my man-children, but I do find that the stereotype has gone a little too far in recent years. I'm ok with being given a girl instead of a woman, but give me a well-rounded one (and I don't mean just physically in case you were getting ready with a pun here), give me one I can picture surviving in real life. I know... I know... Bollywood is not meant to be realistic. But I find that it's doing a great job with the male characters in that department, so why not with the ladies as well?

Maybe when mainstream Bollywood finally discovers adults we'll be treated to some real women, who act like they're firmly in their twenties or thirties. Or fifties. Who think for themselves and know what they want. Who make the right decision for themselves, not for mommy and daddy, not for the boyfriend or for anyone else. And who don't end up alone.

Until then we'll have to make do with girls who assert their independence through teenage rebellion acts such as *gasp* smoking, drinking and driving a scooter at high speed. In traffic. Whoa.

PS: This post was brought to you by Adam's Rib, a Totally Filmi initiative, made possible by the generous support of Bloggistan. For more women power (and for less cynicism than what I just served you) keep an eye on her blog for links to all the participating posts. I promise after I'm done celebrating the male power of Ali Zafar in London Paris New York, I will sit down and write a nice happy post about the ladies of Indian Cinema.