Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Defense of Veronica and Imtiaz

Clearly I get too passionate about Imtiaz Ali's movies for my own good, but it's because for some reason I really, really get them (or I think I do anyway). And it bugs me when they get misinterpreted and judged by, well, people who don't get them.

I liked Cocktail. Didn't love it, and the second half was as messy as they say it is, with too many predictable situations and resolutions, but whatever, no rom-com is perfect, so overall I liked it. And as I've said before I'm all about the characters, so if the first half gives me a bunch of good solid characters and the second half doesn't mess it up too much, then I'm on board. Sure Imtiaz Ali could have been more progressive with Cocktail and written a completely different ending, like the girls ending up together or something (which quite a few people were rooting for) but... considering how many people ripped on Rockstar for the dumbest reasons, I can't really blame the guy. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie and you mind spoilers, stop reading right now. This is not a review, this is a spoilerific rant about what happens in the movie and how it all makes perfect sense to me. You've been warned.

I've been reading a few articles (not many, otherwise there would be a lot of four letter words in this blog post because they tend to get me angrier than I should allow) that talk about how stereotypical Cocktail is because Veronica is a slut, Meera is a virgin and "of course the virgin gets the guy".

Well, first of all, in what universe does the party girl who is clearly shown to be sleeping around get the guy? No, I don't just mean the Indian universe, I mean the WHOLE universe. I'll even take examples from real life, because I for one can't think of a single movie, other than Pretty Woman, where that happens. Let's make one thing clear, oh Indian reviewers who complain that Cocktail is not modern enough: party girls are not considered marriage material. Not here, not anywhere. Especially if they sleep around. It's not fair, it's sexist and it's bullshit, but unfortunately, that's how the world turns. I know because I've spent the last decade being enraged by the stupidity of this real life stereotype where guys who sleep around are studs, while girls who do it are sluts. And I've yelled at guy-friends more than once for calling girls cheap just because they had one-night stands. But you know... unfortunately, that's just how it is. And none of those girls that I was defending are married now (not that they want to be, but I'll get to that too, in a minute), and if they are in a steady relationship it's because enough time has passed since their party days that no one cares anymore. By the way, people still refer to them as the town bike behind their back. Yea, life sucks.

Having said that, those very people who "defend" Veronica's right to a love story and deplore that she didn't get the guy because she's a slut strike me as the most sexist of the lot. Because if they had actually understood the character, they wouldn't be calling her a slut to begin with. Oh, and they'd also have figured out that there was no point in her "getting the guy" because getting the guy is simply not the be all and end all of life. It's easy to get lost in stereotypes and yes, Cocktail does employ some stock characters to build the story on, but, in writing, a cliche is a problem only if it's used simplistically. If enough is built around it to justify it, then it's not a cliche anymore. Or as someone smarter than me once put it: has the cliche been earned? If so, it's cool. And this is the catch with Veronica: that cliche has definitely been earned by her character's backstory.

Veronica is fucked up. There's no way around this, she just is. She was abandoned by her parents who don't give two shits about her, she's been leeched off of probably her whole life because she has money, in fact it's been happening for so long that this has become her way of keeping people around, and she's incapable of building real, committed relationships. She loses herself in alcohol and drugs every night because she just wants to feel something. In a brilliant little scene after Veronica takes Meera home, she is shown talking to the videocamera and asking herself "How do I feel?", then unconvincingly concluding she feels "happy". That little scene sums up Veronica's needs in a nutshell. But to me Veronica gets the happiest ending of all three characters: she learns how to create and maintain a relationship that can give her the emotional stability she craves. That's what she thinks she wants from Gautam, and because society told her so, she thinks she can only obtain it by getting married and being a good wife. But the awesomeness of Cocktail is that she realizes she can have all this without giving up her personality.

How is that not modern enough? How can people be so narrow-minded as to root for her to "get the guy" and get married when that's EXACTLY what would obliterate her personality completely? Her personality, by the way, is not that she drinks and parties, but that she's free-spirited and independent. And not yet ready to settle down and play wife. Nothing wrong with that from where I'm sitting.

Which brings me to: Cocktail is not a movie about getting the guy, who marries him, who doesn't. The guy is completely irrelevant to the plot, or if you will, much like the girls are in Southie masala, he's just a catalyst for the plot. The real relationship, the real story happens between the girls. So even without going into bisexual territory, Imtiaz Ali and Sajid Ali create a romance between the two girls where they go through everything that two people in a romantic relationship would go through (or really, any kind of close relationship): they bond, they share, they make each other happy, they give each other emotional support, they balance each other out, they break up, they sacrifice things for each other and in the end realize that they still love each other. Voila. The story of every rom-com out there. Oh, but yeah, the guy is only a small part of it. Ooops, damn it, Cocktail writers, how dare you be so un-modern!

I guess this is the biggest point I wanted to make with this rant: if one looks at Cocktail from the traditional angle of the guy having to choose between two girls, then yes, it's cliched and it ends the way every other movie of its kind ends. But Cocktail changes the point of view and completely sidelines the male lead in order to give us the relationship between two strong, stubborn yet fragile, independent women (though each in a different way), whose friendship gets challenged by the events in the film. By the end we're almost not even invested in whether or not Meera and Gautam end up together but in how will Veronica and Meera make up because that's the relationship we don't want to see destroyed. For me it's a completely different movie when looked at from this point of view, and that's what I was hoping more people would take away from it.

Obviously this is Veronica's movie all the way, but I do have a few thoughts on the other two characters as well. First up: Gautam.

Gautam is described as a flirt and a social butterfly, but the movie shows us that it's only he who has that image of himself. He tries to flirt with girls all the time but I don't remember any scenes where that got him anywhere. Except for the scene at the office with the Asian client. And here I have to remind myself that this is a Hindi film and they have no clue how to even write Asian characters, so that was going to come out wrong anyway. But it's worth noting that the Asian lady merely forgives him for being late after he delivers his cheesy line, she doesn't go to bed with him or anything. She does show up at the club later on, but then so does everyone else in the office, so I read that as the company taking the client out, not as Gautam scoring with her. Of course, I could be wrong. If I am, then that's the only scene where his flirting gets him a date. And yes, I remember the waitress at the bar in the first scene, but I'm pretty sure she was really after a fat tip.

Then what happens with Gautam? He falls in love. Let's remind ourselves, by the way, that his summary of the relationship with Veronica is perfectly accurate: casual sex, companionship, no commitment offered or wanted from either side. No one ever mentions love. So why would he be at fault for falling in love with someone else? There's no betrayal from his point of view, he's free to do whatever he pleases. And that brings me to another thorny point: "he falls for Meera because she's the proper desi bride". Um... again... I disagree. He falls for Meera for the same reasons why Veronica loves her: she grounds him, she keeps him real, she doesn't take any of his bullshit and she is, unlike Veronica, emotionally available. By the by, the moment when Gautam starts noticing Meera is not in her demure interactions with his mother but rather when she lets herself go and channels her inner Veronica, showing that there's more fun to her than what Gautam initially thought.

So technically speaking, it's not the virgin that gets the guy, it's the wild side of the virgin that gets him to notice her. But that's once again going into details. The point here is: any guy would fall for Meera. And any guy looking to settle down would choose her, not because she's a virgin but because she exudes stability. It really is that simple. Or to put it more plainly: why wouldn't he choose her?

Meera on the other hand is the hardest one to read. I think the key to her character is in a little scene when she is looking at Gautam and Veronica being lovey-dovey. She wants that, but because she's so insecure she doesn't really know how to get it. So when it comes to her in the form of a reformed Gautam, she falls for it against her better judgement. She almost falls for it because she doesn't know any better and, just like Veronica, she craves that kind of affection without knowing where or how to get it. As Gautam so brilliantly puts it: "You're lonely and I'm characterless." Of course when the butterflies kick in all reason goes out the window, which reminds me that my favourite kind of criticism has been stuff like "She's so dumb that she falls for him". Uh... yeah... because you've never fallen for the wrong person despite knowing better. Because love has EVERYTHING to do with reason. Everything.

Sarcasm aside, did you ever notice that despite being such a "good girl" Meera never once judges Veronica for her loose ways? She has a couple of moments where she appeals to Veronica's non-existent sense of decency (such as asking where her pants are), but she never attempts to change her. Same can be said for Gautam: she judges him initially and is proved wrong (in a scene that is played for laughs, but I think it's pretty important), after which she concedes to get to know him and accepts him as Veronica's boyfriend.

Generally speaking people's capacity to accept each other for who they are, warts and everything, is what makes Cocktail stand out from the likes of Mujhse Dosti Karoge and other gems from the early 2000s. And what separates Gautam's mother's generation from this modern one. Yup, I said modern. Now sue me for defending such a "regressive", "cliched" and "trite" movie.

Oh dear, I've done it again. I've written a long blog post just to say to Imtiaz Ali: it's ok, I still love you, I still get you. Let those square-headed journos blabber, you just keep doing your thing and being awesome.

Ahem... Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. Cocktail. It's not a perfect movie, it's not free of plot holes and flaws. But there's more to it than the cliched love triangle that some reviewers are seeing it as. Way more to it.

Cocktail (2012, Hindi)
Director: Homi Adajania
Writers: Imtiaz Ali, Sajid Ali
Starring: Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan, Diana Penty

Monday, July 16, 2012

Vedam Review

Vedam for me was one of those filmi film experiences that one never forgets. I had pestered the Toronto distributor for this film so much that the moment it arrived in a theatre here (two weeks after the release), he called me to let me know. Funny thing is, I had never met him but he knew who I was (probably from the Varudu screening where my friend and I were the only two goris, which attracted a ton of attention). When I got to the theatre for a Sunday morning screening, several people escorted me to my seat. I felt like such a rockstar.

But as always with Telugu movies, there were no subtitles, so at the time I decided to wait with my review until I had seen it with subs because I've learned over the years that the most awesome looking films can have the dumbest dialogues, so the saying about judging a book by its cover really applies most of the times.

The film follows the inter-weaved stories of:
- Cable Raju (Allu Arjun), a slum cable provider whose goal is to marry a rich girl
- Vivek (Manchu Manoj), a rock band singer looking to make it big in Hyderabad with his band
- Saroja (Anushka Shetty), a prostitute trying to move on to bigger business
- Ramulu (Nagayya), a weaver who owes money to the local gangster
- Khureshi (Manoj Bajpay, always a joy to watch), a Muslim man whose wife's unborn twins get killed in a religious incident.
All five stories come together in the end during a terrorist attack.

Namak: Boy, am I glad we had no subs for the first song in the theatre. We really should have turned them off on the DVD too.

Dolce: I'm sure they're not that bad in the original form.
Namak: But it's not just the lyrics, the picturization is atrocious as well.
Dolce: Heh, not every movie is a Rockstar, you know. Besides, what do we know about metal bands in Bangalore, maybe they all practice in huge empty warehouses and pose for imaginary photoshoots while singing and being all badass, smoking on the "sets" and other such acts of rebellion.

Namak: Ha! Or maybe the only reason why this song even exists is to make sure everyone got a song.
Dolce: Speaking of songs---
Namak: Yeah... I know. I know. How sexy and awesome is Prapancham?

Dolce: Possibly my favourite moves from Arjun, despite really loving a lot of his other songs. There's something uber-sexy in this one, and it's not just the fact that he wears his jeans "street-dancing style".
Namak: To show how gangsta' he is, yo!
Dolce: Shut up, you know you watched this song on repeat before writing this review.

Jokes aside, it is rather neat that almost every character intro is done through a song. Even the old man Ramulu is introduced to the rhythmic beats of the silk machine and the poem recited by his grandson. It's not an easy story to tell, with 5 different tracks eventually merging together in the end, but because of how different their environments are and because of how unique each character is, I was never confused. The ample intros really helped with that. 

In the beginning of the film the theme connecting everyone is escape: everyone is looking to get out of their current situation and build a better future for themselves (through money, fame or just respect). Krish seems to like ragging on that stereotype, it was a running theme in his first film as well, Gamyam. Which is fine, it's a good message to pass on, and it's cleverly used in this film because as the money or gold travels from one character to the next we get to really evaluate how deserving they are of it, and also how important it is for us as the viewer to see their problem resolved. I liked that just like the film's characters, I was also forced to choose who should end up with it.

Namak: Quite a few layers of the pyramid of needs here, no? Everything from wanting a rich wife, to wanting an education for your children, to starting a new business.
Dolce: Needs and wants. Old Ramulu's plight was really the only valid need. 
Namak: Why just his? When you think about it, his is also more of a want than a need: they're trying to get the money so his grandson can go to school and get an education which will provide a better life. Just because his sacrifice is bigger doesn't make his situation more tragic, emotions aside, of course.
Dolce: Well, if you look at it like that, anything other than the need for food is a "nice-to-have". How is Raju's situation then different from Ramulu's? He just wants a better life. And the persecuted Khureshi? He doesn't need to leave, he wants to.
Namak: That's just it, it's hard to draw the line. Who has the bigger need and who is more deserving. Which is probably what the movie was trying to say too, in giving us all these different scenarios. In the end, everyone earns their right to happiness, whatever that happy may be.

But there's more than one theme in Vedam, and another one that comes up in every story is religion. As much as I disliked the rock-band's entire story (including the obnoxiousness of Vivek's character, though there is a point to it in the end), they had a couple of good dialogues about humanity, thinking bigger than themselves and also, about how religion only divides because people don't "speak the same language". I found that track to be the most rushed and poorly established, but if more time had been spent on it, it could have been the best one. I'm always happy to see young people who successfully blend universal values such as compassion and tolerance with unorthodox lifestyles and I thought Lasya, Vivek's love-interest, really nailed that combo despite having only a few small scenes. It's too bad so much screentime had to be spent on Manoj Manchu's singing, but such is the filmi world we live in... it's all about the heroes.

But ultimately Vedam is a movie about sacrifice and humanity. It's a movie about how heroes are made in a world that is neither selfless, nor fair. And it's about those very rare moments when one realizes that being self-absorbed is an even bigger sin than stealing or lying. Sure, Vedam puts it in a very idealistic set-up, but hey, what's life without a little hyperbole?

Krish always seems to do well with visuals in his films, though song picturizations are not his forte. But he has an eye for atmospheric moments and snapshots that tell their own stories. The colony in which Raju conducts his illicit cable business got some of the coolest shots, though Saroja's brothel is a close second. Krish is almost as good with brothels as Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Uh... no pun intended, of course.

And because Allu Arjun was the main reason for me to even see this movie, can't leave without a word about him. The first time I watched Vedam I was convinced my favourite Arjun moments were his emotional scenes in the hospital. They're still my favourites. But I've added one more: in one of their very few interactions Saroja asks Raju if it's true love between him and the rich girl. His hesitant expression: part guilt, part conviction, part self-doubt... as if it was the first time he had to ask himself that question... Brilliant.

It's not that Vedam is a perfect film, it's not. It tries too hard in many places and stretches plausibility. And it has less than mediocre music. But it's also full of perfect little moments and imperfect little characters that win your heart. It may have taken the DVD a long time to come out, but it's one that was well worth the wait. Now excuse me while I go watch that wicked song again. Another 50 times.

Vedam (2011, Telugu)
Director: Krish
Starring: Allu Arjun, Manchu Manoj, Anushka Shetty, Nagayya, Manoj Bajpai
Music: MM Keeravani