Monday, September 17, 2012

Barfi! is a Delicious Fairytale

The last time Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, two of my favourite actors, were in a movie together I was supremely let down. While they both looked exquisite, the story of Anjaana Anjaani turned out to be disappointing to say the least. Barfi! is the exact opposite: their looks are entirely unappealing (lose the mouche, Ranbir, I beg you!) but the story is a fantastic dream! The type of modern fairy-tale that we see so little of even in World Cinema, let alone coming out of India.

The trailer leads you to believe that Barfi! is the love story of a deaf-mute manic-pixie-dream-boy (as one of my Twitter friends hilariously calls Ranbir) and the gorgeous out-of-towner Shruti (played by long-time favourite from South-Indian movies Ileana D'Cruz). With a dash of tear-jerking moments provided by what seems to be the autistic sister (or close friend).

None of that is true. Barfi/Murphy is not a manic pixie dream boy, in fact he is very much his own character even though his influence on Ileana's character could match a loose definition of MPDG/B. Also, the film is not a love story. Or better said, it's not ONE love story. Add to that the very well-played mystery factor (yes, it plays a bit like a whodunit too!) and a dash of comedy and you're closer to what Barfi really looks like. I was extremely pleased with the way the film was put together overall, with the flashbacks taking their time to reveal the story and with different characters telling the story at different times. Narration is hard enough to handle even from the point of view of one character, let alone several, so I was truly impressed with the outcome.

The other reason why Barfi! blew me away visually, and this may also be my TIFF hangover, was how well they used close-ups and details. Whether it was zooming in so close that I could trace the liner on Ileana's eye-lids with my finger, or making old Barfi's white hair stand on end in a giant mess, everything about these characters felt so close to you and endearing. But, and this is the impressive part, never overbearing. (Of course, they could still improve on the wigs, but heh... nobody's perfect.)

Speaking of Ileana, one of the reasons why I'll be very happy to see Barfi! succeed is because it will mean seeing more of Ileana D'Cruz in Bollywood. Not that I don't love her in the South (where they make full use of her exquisite body shape, unlike Barfi!), but she deserves more than just being arm-candy for the hero.

I must admit that on occasion I can be very easily amused by old-school movie gags like people walking into lamp-posts or pies thrown in someone's face. But it can also get old for me just as easily. Barfi! uses a lot of physicality for its comedy, but considering a lot of it had to do with Saurabh Shukla rolling his eyes and making faces as the police officer always on Barfi's tail, I didn't mind it too much. I would have found Barfi unbearable if the antics had been only on Ranbir's side, but with an actor as entertaining and hilarious as Saurabh Shukla, he was well balanced (and dare I say, out-goofed!).

When a movie like "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is your benchmark for characters with mental illness, it's really hard to not be apprehensive about other actors and actresses attempting these roles. Because nothing can top that movie for me. So despite my well-documented love for Priyanka, I was afraid. I was very afraid. At the same time I have very little real life experience with this type of issue, so that usually works in my favour when I watch movies because I tend to be forgiving if everything seems reasonably realistic. As it turns out, it was a good place to watch Barfi! from. Priyanka was adorable and so hug-able and with the exception of a couple of over the top moments she got it as right as one could hope for.

It's not just that she's not relying on her looks to stun us, but apart from Saat Khoon Maaf I've never seen Priyanka use her body, her eyes and even her hands so much to develop a character. My favourite scenes would be too spoilery for this review, but let's just say she had me at the headbutt.

I was also afraid of Ranbir overdoing his Charlu Chaplin act, which in this fan's opinion has been done to death and I was ready to never see him goof around like that ever again. Go figure, even that turned out to be an unfounded fear. It's not that he doesn't abuse it, but it didn't bother me one bit because there were plenty of serious moments to make up for it. His character has far more depth to it than the trailers had us believe and mercifully he's not running around banging his head against a wall the entire movie. His permanent smile is not, as I had thought, just an expression of permanent optimism, but also at times a mask behind which he can hide when the words he cannot speak fail him.

I think the moral of the story here may end up being that I need to stop watching trailers and base my expectations on them, huh?

Because despite all these expectations that the trailers built (for better or worse), Barfi! is not a goofy story. It may be a fairy-tale, which means its characters seem to live in this world that is conveniently supportive, but it's one well-wrapped in a healthy lesson about unrestrained love and loyalty. About settling or moving on. And about recognizing that you found what you were looking for even in the strangest places.

Barfi! has a simple message: companionship and having fun with each other are the key ingredients to making a relationship last, not teenage crushes. And oh, how I love a movie that shows love is not a one-time deal! Few Indian films subscribe to this philosophy and you all know it's one of my biggest pet peeves with Indian cinema, Bollywood and elsewhere. So with that as the cherry on an already sweet and delicious cake, what more can I ask for?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review

Sometimes this is the problem with TIFF: you navigate so many movies in so little time that you don't have the luxury of getting "in the right mood" for each film. I saw The Reluctant Fundamentalist after English Vinglish and before Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2. And its subtlety was maybe too much for me. I came out of it disappointed that it lacked the punch I was expecting. Perhaps it really did lack teeth (and reading excerpts from the book now, I am tempted to say that it did), or perhaps I failed to dial in on the right frequency. Or maybe I was too distracted by my blinding crush on Riz Ahmed (seriously! those EYES!!) to take note of other aspects of the film. Anything's possible.

Gawd!!! Ahem... I rest my case!
This is the story of a Pakistani/Punjabi young man, Changez, who goes to the US to study and work. After graduation he gets hired into a valuation firm where he quickly rises up the ranks through his gift for thinking outside the box and through his ruthless approach to optimizing profit for companies, oftentimes at the expense of their workers. He's a confident, even cocky young man who wants... everything. Then of course 9/11 hits. And between episodes of racial profiling and pressure from his family (and from other people he meets) to choose a side, he ends up moving back to Pakistan where he becomes a teacher at the University of Lahore. But his life is far from peaceful even here as he continues to be under suspicion of terrorist ties, so when an American professor gets kidnapped in Lahore, his allegiances have to be tested once again.

I won't spend too much time on the present-day part of the story because as gorgeous as the opening scene is - the music from a qawwali concert attended by the Khan family (Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play Changez's parents) playing over images of the American professor getting roughed up and taken away in a van - it's a pretty bland ride from here. The dialogues between Changez Khan and his interviewer Bobby (Liev Schreiber) sound like every other Hollywood movie script, so while the action keeps you engaged, there's not much to be learned from this.

The real story is told in flashbacks by a bearded Changez and it takes us through his love affair with New York and the American Dream, and then through his disenchantment with the land of the free in the paranoid post-9/11 world. The first part of the story is extremely well told: in several short but highly effective scenes we learn about the growing distance between Changez and the culture of his parents, we get to know him as a caustic, sometimes arrogant but always charming young man, we see him winning over his colleagues and superiors, and we root for his budding romance with Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson who should henceforth forget that any colour other than blonde even exists).

And through all this, while we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, we're perfectly in sync with this complex character. We laugh at Changez's self-deprecating dry humour even though we know it will turn sour later on. We rejoice with him when he gets promoted even though we know he'll only fall harder. We cheer for him when he tells Erica "All these pictures of me? Come on, you must have a little crush on me." even though we know that relationship can't end well. But then 9/11 happens. And this strong character starts closing up and we lose that connection we thought we had with him.

This was, for me, the biggest flaw of the film. There's an episode where Changez talks about how he felt as he was watching the planes hit the towers on 9/11 and he says (quoting from memory) "Before I got to think about the loss of human lives and about what this meant, for a few brief moments I was in awe... at the audacity of this act. At the brilliance of it." It's a shocking statement, and it holds a promise of a film that will pull no punches. But unfortunately, this is the only moment of its kind. The rest of his inner struggle seems to happen behind closed doors and we never get more insight into his changes of heart. Yes, we witness him being a victim of racial profiling, yes, we see him question his line of work in front of a situation that is too close to home for comfort and yes, we see how his skin colour becomes visible to those close to him, but I for one was in the dark about how this strong, determined, ambitious man ended up doing a complete u-turn. Maybe I wouldn't need an explanation if I was an NRI myself, and maybe this movie is made for NRIs, but as someone who wasn't even on the continent when 9/11 happened, I couldn't relate to him without some guidance and there was none.

But that said, maybe it was just me. Maybe others will watch and totally get it.

And I do highly recommend watching it, if not for Riz Ahmed (in case you missed all my gushing so far, he's fabulous!), then for Mira Nair's flawless direction (what else is new?) and for the excellent music. Given that this soundtrack has been impossible to find, I wasn't even aware that I would be treated to two Atif Aslam songs, so imagine my giddiness when all of a sudden I recognized his voice. Not only that, but one of the songs is a collaboration with Peter Gabriel, who wrote the music for the Urdu poem sung by Atif. I wish I could find even a snippet of it on youtube, I know it would sell the movie single-handedly.

Speaking of Pakistani artists, another little moment of unexpected joy was provided by Mira's nod to a film I absolutely loved last year: Shoaib Mansoor's Bol. In one of the scenes setting up the stage in Lahore, a couple (can't remember if it was Shabana and Om or just a random couple) comes out from a screening of Bol and comments on the virtues of the film. You can't imagine how that made my day!

Last but not least, for a film about racial tensions post 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist also packs a surprising amount of humour, and some of the extra-dry one-liners had the entire audience (and this screened to a full house at TIFF) in stitches. A special mention here to Nelsan Ellis who gets some of the most hilarious wisecracks as an American of (I assume) Jamaican origins. 

So with that in mind, I take your leave now to go and hunt down the book which I am hoping will give me more of those one-liners along with a better insight into the fascinating Changez Khan. I may need to keep a picture of Riz Ahmed open while reading it though...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

English Vinglish Review

Lately I've been wondering if Bollywood is losing its appeal for me, I've been getting into other things, haven't loved too many flicks, and even when watching Indian films I was mostly interested in the artsy stuff than the big films. For a while I thought it was Bollywood going through a slump. Then I thought maybe it's me, maybe this hobby had just run its course. But English Vinglish, the story of a woman whose confidence suffers because she can't speak English like the rest of her family can, reminded me why I fell in love with Bollywood back in the day. It reminded me of the feeling of watching a movie and not caring if it's simple or complex, or if it has a certain star, or if it's perfectly edited, or even if I agree with the philosophy of it. It reminded me of those times when I used to watch Bollywood movies just for the magic of seeing a different world materialize in front of my eyes.

Strange how that is because English Vinglish is not a particularly novel story, nor does it have the kind of strong heroine that I usually like to see. In fact I was heard to whisper-scream at poor Shashi (Sridevi's character): "Get a sense of humour already!!". But something about the way the story unfolded made me happy to just be in this movie. Maybe it was the ladoos that made everything sweeter because man oh man are they everywhere in this film! The trailer alone mentions them about 50 times! (And thank God the lovely people at TIFF gave us some after because otherwise I'd probably be in Little India right now, at 3 am, looking for them.)

Having never seen a full Sridevi movie before I didn't really know what to expect from her. But the moment she did a series of Michael Jackson moves in the beginning of the movie she had me eating out of her hand. And even though her wimpy character infuriated me in the beginning I was still happy to cheer for her to become a stronger woman as the movie progressed. Being a big believer in the idea that respect is earned, not implied, I did have a bone to pick with Shashi in the first half of the movie which plays like a less dramatic version of the Seeta story in Seeta aur Geeta. The type of story that irritates me by default. But unlike with Seeta and Geeta I can sincerely appreciate a character who finds the strength to change their condition within themselves, without waiting for a Geeta to come flying down from heaven, so when Shashi decided to go take English lessons and picked up the phone, I was fully on board with this character.

Also, how badass is Shashi's sister? She only had one important line in the whole movie but how fabulous was it that at the core of the story it's not some teenage crush that motivates Shashi to change, but the respect she has for her sister! I, for one, really appreciated this detail, fleeting as it was. Yay for sister power!
Apart from Sridevi, who was simply lovely, Adil Hussain also puts in a wonderful performance as the distant husband. I must commend him for the way he played Satish because it would have been very easy for that character to come across as the villain, but he retains enough warmth in his interactions with Shashi that I kept finding excuses for his behaviour even when, maybe, he didn't deserve it. And I know most people will disagree with this because I've seen this character get labelled as a class A jerk more than once so far. I may be a jerk myself but I found some of his jokes quite funny and harmless, certainly not as offensive as they were made out to be by Shashi's dramatic reactions. Really girl, if you're offended, speak up, slap him, do something about it, don't just sit there and suffer in silence. But I've already addressed this earlier so I won't bore you again with it.

English Vinglish, by the way, is one of those rare Hindi films where you end up caring about all those secondary characters too because they feel like real people. I've seen those people in my own Business English classes, so it was nice to meet them again in a movie. Ironically enough (and a first for me), the non-desi characters felt more fleshed out than some of the desi ones. At least in the English class. And I don't just mean Mehdi Nebbou, who got a heart flutter even out of me when he started speaking in French in one of the scenes towards the end (you'll *know* which one it is but hint: it's over the phone, and yes, it's so much dreamier if you understand French). Hell, you could have swept me onto a dustpan and carried me out of the theatre after that scene, that's how perfect he was. And I don't even like that language. Though, to be fair he did get some glorious lines throughout, and his oh-so-snob attitude towards fries had me smiling from ear to ear, which let's think about it for a second: how often is a non-desi character so well written in a Hindi film that you like them right away? Sadly, not often at all. (Oh but yes, it helps that he's so handsome too.)

Speaking of non-desi characters, I was ready to cringe about the gay English teacher. I mean I was ready to just close my eyes and go lalalalala every time he spoke to avoid throwing shoes at the screen because, well, Indian movies are not exactly known for sensitive portrayals of such minorities. And again, what a surprise. Yes, he was over the top at times (as are, in fact, most of my real life gay friends), but for the most part Cory Hibbs hit all the right notes! Not only did he stay away from those done-to-death mannerisms such as the limp hand, the lisp and addressing everyone with "honey", but the film treats him as normal person, not as a curiosity or as an alien (ok, his clothes were kind of crazy but hey I know straight men who dress worse than that!). And I know the entire audience was with me on this one because there was unanimous clapping when the point was made in one of the scenes in the film. I love Toronto!

Of course Sridevi got the biggest cheers throughout the film, it goes without saying, and well deserved, but from me the biggest cheer goes to the writer-director, Gauri Shinde, who manages to create a story that, as the kids say these days, keeps it real from beginning to end. So real in fact that I was reminded of my first trip to North America and how daunting and complicated everything seemed: from the push-bars on the buses to the streets in downtown (and Toronto is also a grid-city, just like New York, you'd think it's the easiest thing in the world), to the drinks menus in restaurants and the neverending streets in the suburbias. All these little details, all these little fears, all these little victories, Gauri Shinde captures them in the movie and plays them for laughs without shoving them in your face.

Image courtesy of
And we did laugh a lot throughout the movie. And we smiled a lot. We even clapped a few times. Because there are goofy scenes, yes, but then there are also moments that are funny in a quiet, homely kind of way. My favourite bits were Meera (the bride to be) translating some random ridiculousness to her American husband-to-be when he couldn't understand Hindi. Their relationship wasn't talked about much, but these little moments made them look like a real couple who teases each other and pokes each other. Of course, pyaar se. By the way, not sure if the role reversal was intentional but I like to think this is what Shashi and her husband would have been like at the beginning of their marriage. So just keep that in mind when you're laughing at Meera making fun of her fiance's difficulties with Hindi: if Satish is a jerk, then she is one too. Perspective is everything, no?

English Vinglish is not a story with fireworks and emotional outbursts. It doesn't need to be. It's just a simple little story about how people, words and events can change your attitude towards life in the blink of an eye. And about finding the right balance. It's the kind of movie that I know I could find flaws in (and I probably will on subsequent viewings) but its message is so endearing and so in line with my own life philosophy that I'd rather sit and munch on my ladoo with a smile on my face than nit-pick at it. While I do that, you go watch, I dare you to be a curmudgeon when you come out of it! And if you are, just watch the fabulous songs again!

PS: One more picture of Mehdi Nebbou at the premiere (courtesy of Filmicafe) because I could never resist a man dressed in black.