Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Filmy Moments in India

A lot of people asked me when I came back from India if I was going to blog about it. And I said: naah. With so many travel blogs out there, who cares that one more gori went to India, right? But for the past couple of weeks I've been remembering different moments from this trip, most of them having to do with movies, and they were moments I was wishing I could share with you guys even as they were happening, so I guess I will blog about my trip to India a little bit. Don't worry, I won't dwell on culture shock and opinions on India as a country, this is a full-on filmy post.

I should mention I am writing this while listening to Radha, because, as fellow Bollywood lover and travel companion Larissa noted, it was the song that followed us everywhere. Guess I underestimated KJo's ear for a popular soundtrack. This was omnipresent!

Our trip started in Varanasi, for the first part of a three-part wedding celebration, where pretty much everything was filmy. Having ladoos in the bridal suite while waiting for the sangeet, sneaking out of the bride's party to go meet the baaraat outside, helping the bride drape her sari for one of the many poojas (I'm particularly proud of this one), participating in the haldi ceremony, chasing some kids around in a (successful) attempt to steal the groom's shoe, sneaking things in and out for the bride, chilling with the aunties, none of this stuff happens at weddings here, so it was all new and very filmy for me. Everything reminded me of some movie or other.

Dev D anyone?

I thought Varanasi itself would remind me of a film I had seen recently at TIFF, The Bright Day. It didn't, and I understand now why the director Mohit Takalkar and the cinematographer Amol Gole were so highly praised for this film. One thing I will have to say about Varanasi though: it's a ridiculously photogenic place.

After Varanasi we went to Hyderabad. And any Tollywood fan will know exactly where we went first.

Golconda Fort!!!

Our guide was not impressed with the fact that we wanted to be shown the exact spot where Pokiri was filmed (in fact I suspect he didn't even know because he dodged the question until we found it ourselves), but we didn't really care. And luckily there were no guides to frown upon our excitement the next day when we went to see the Char Minar. Eeeeee!!!

Char Minar

The next stop was Mumbai. And Mumbai turned out to be less filmi and more boring than it looked in the movies. The only time we came close to Bollywood was running into a huge crowd in front of the Taj. Unable to see anything past the crowd, we stopped to ask some backup camera crew people who were just chilling by the trailer. The conversation went like this:

Dolce: What are they shooting for?
Camera guy: Oh, it's for an ad.
Dolce: Who's the star?
Camera guy: Uh, it's a film star.
Dolce: Yes, but who?
Camera guy (dismissively): It's a Bollywood actor.
Dolce: Arre yaar, WHICH Bollywood actor??
Camera guy (tentatively): Vivek Oberoi.
Dolce (while exchanging a disappointed look with Larissa): Oh. It's only Vivek Oberoi. Let's go.
Camera guy picks up jaw from the floor.

Victoria Terminus

But Mumbai had other more delicious meetings reserved for us. I had one of the best dinners in India with, fittingly, a food blogger: the gorgeous Swati Sapna. And it was exactly how I imagined our first meeting: fillums fillums fillums. We covered everything from upcoming releases to classics like Pithamagan, to AR Rahman soundtracks, the IIFAs and just about every Bollywood and Kollywood star out there (granted, some more than others). In between we talked about food from all parts of India, living in Mumbai, traveling, work, but really, who am I kidding, it was back to filmi talk within a minute of trying to talk about anything else. In short: a perfect night!

The filminess continued the next morning when we left Mumbai because our driver was in love with the Zeher soundtrack. So we heard Woh Lamhe (one of my favourites) and Agar Tum Mil Jao about a dozen times on the way to the airport, which was cool by me.

And so, to the sweet sound of Atif Aslam's voice, we were off to Chennai, where another blog friend had promised a long time ago to give me a filmi tour of the city. Mukundh met us at the airport and hung out with us quite a bit while we were in Chennai, which was great because it's the city where I would have felt the most lost. It helps that he's a very attentive host and all kinds of adorable, but he'll kill me if he gets to know I said that in public, on top of being a knowledgeable tourguide. So not only did I get my filmi tour of where everyone lives and works and where cool stuff (read Mani Ratnam stuff) was filmed, but I got most of it from the back of a motorbike. Howzzat for cool?

Checking out the Broken Bridge in Adyar, a reminder that I have to watch Ayudha Ezhuthu already!

Of course when you're not on a motorbike in Chennai you have a very big chance of being in a rickshaw all done up with filmi heroes.

Vijay is EVERYwhere in Tamil Nadu. Everywhere!
TN definitely takes it away for hero worship, and it's the only place where I can't even remember whose picture we saw first on a hoarding (could be because I had a helmet three sizes too big on my head, but I'll never admit to that). In Mumbai it was Salman followed shortly by Katrina (coincidence, I swear!). In Hyderabad it was obviously Mahesh Babu. Kerala was all about Aishwarya, though the very first hoarding we saw in Kochi was none other than blog-favourite Prithviraj. But I'll be damned if I can remember who we saw first in Chennai. Madhavan, Vijay, Rajini, Surya, they're all everywhere, from stickers and t-shirts in malls, to hoardings and shop signs. We even saw a stand in Mamallapuram selling cutouts of all the heroes (or maybe selling the opportunity to take a picture with one? We'll never know, we refused to pay to click a picture).

The Lighthouse in Pondy

We did the obligatory daytrip to Pondycherry and had the obligatory steak, but my favourite place was by far Mamallapuram, with its unassuming beaches and elegant ruins. It was the first time when I felt, truly felt, that I was visiting a country and a culture with thousands of years of history.

Next on our filmi itinerary: Dabangg 2 in a single screen theatre in Kochi!! Our lovely and very funny host in Kochi was none other than Amrita, of Masala Zindabad Podcast fame. Amrita told us all about Kochi back in the day, took us to some of her favourite spots (and her favourite restaurant immediately became my favourite restaurant too!), helped me do some jewellery shopping, and, this is the moment everyone's been waiting for, took us to see Dabangg 2!

Now the movie is really not much to talk about, in fact we had already forgotten the plot by interval (probably because there was none), but I could tell you stories about this experience for hours! It was the only time in India when I found the curiosity surrounding us perfectly justified: 2 goras, 2 goris, plus Amrita walking into a single screen theatre on opening day. Need I even mention that the audience was over 90% males? And that some were dressed for the occasion (read Salman style)? No, I don't think I have to. Either way, as soon as the movie started, the atmosphere was a blast. I want to lament the fact that "the atmosphere" also included an asshole who was answering his phone during pretty much the entire first half, but I already said we went to see this movie in India, so I have a feeling that's implied.

But let's be honest. I wasn't there to hear the dialogues. I wasn't there to see Salman headbutt a fist (though that was a great bonus). I wasn't there to watch a good movie. I was there to watch this:

And man was that ever a treat! Watching that theatre clap, cheer, whistle and catcall during the entire item number made me understand why item numbers won't be going anywhere for a loooong time to come. It also made me understand why actresses who we think are not worthy of them get paid royally to dance in item numbers. Because it's not about the dancing. It's not about the acting. And it's not about the significance of the song in the context of the film. It's simply about Kareena Kapoor being sexy as hell in a backless choli for 5 whole minutes. And that, my dear readers, was the most valuable filmi lesson I learned in India.

From Kochi we went to another filmi destination: the Athirapally Waterfalls.

If the name doesn't tell you anything, it's the place where they filmed this beauty!

Definitely worth a trip if you're in the area, though maybe not two days before Christmas because it's packed.

Another favourite place in India was our next stop, but nothing filmi happened there so I have no excuse to post a picture. Oh but wait! I do! Guess who was omnipresent even around the canals of Alleppey?

Vijay's jewellery ads were matched in number only by Madhavan's
And Larissa and I had a little debate about whether or not that's his mom in real life, so any knowledge on the topic is welcome. Though most of the time we were just quietly enjoying scenery such as this:

And this:

We left Alleppey to the soothing sound of another great AR Rahman song: the lovely Jashn-e-Bahara. He seems to have followed us around on this trip too, but I suppose that's to be expected in India. And we certainly missed Rahman in Kanyakumari where we spent Christmas. Because little did we know that these giant speakers that can be seen in pretty much every open space, in every village and town,

... would keep us up all night AND all Christmas day by playing - nay - blasting music like it was the end of the world. I used to like Nakka Mukka.

Now I kinda wanna shoot myself when I hear it.

But luckily our nightmarish stay in Kanyakumari was followed by the peaceful tea plantations in Munnar. And to go back to the AR Rahman themed soundtrack of our South-India trip, the song that will always remind me of Munnar is Challa, because it was playing on someone's boombox while I was taking pictures of our spectacular view. What a perfect moment!

After a very chilled out visit to Mysore, which I loved, one last filmy meet-up was waiting in Mumbai. They say you should only do things you enjoy on January the 1st because that's how the rest of the year will pass too. And if that's true, I'm looking at a deliciously fun 2013 because I spent my January 1st with the super-cute Vistrit, discovering ice-cream flavours (custard apple FTW!), shopping for Indian sweets in Bandra and getting schooled on the do's and dont's of fancy desi-wear (closed toe shoes are a resounding NO with saris, apparently. Ooops!). Couldn't have dreamt a better ending for this trip!

It's hard to describe your first visit to India when people ask. It's such a whirlwind of impressions, good and bad, so many stories you can tell and so many moments you can't even begin to describe. But the one thing I never fail to mention in my stories about India is how many cool people I got to meet and hang out with. Because for me that was the best part of the whole trip and it's the reason why I can't wait to go back.

Well... ok, fine, and the food.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola

Man this title is a mouthful! And well... so is the movie. And an earful. And an eyeful. (Do all these words even exist?? No matter. Nor do pink buffaloes.) I went to this one with little excitement after reading all the disappointed tweets and reviews. Could this be the first time that my favourite director lets me down? Because while I have come to expect duds from pretty much everyone else, Vishal Bhardwaj was standing alone as the only director who has not made a single bad movie, in this blogger's opinion anyway (and I know many don't agree). His new venture, a film about a wacky trio and their messed up relationships, is set against the backdrop of a village trying to save their land from the scheming politicians and the greedy industrialists. With so much stuff going on, I was ready for anything.

So... how did it go, you ask?

Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is my least favourite Vishal Bhardwaj film. But that said, the man has yet to let me down, because even my least favourite film of his has me going back to the theatre for a rewatch. And I'll say it right from the beginning, it's my least favourite because I am used to Vishal Bhardwaj running a much tighter ship than this. With his previous projects one thing was always certain: you either liked the whole thing, or you didn't. There were never half measures, or scenes that could be taken out, there was never room for improvement from the direction point of view. Maybe his characters were objectionable (7 Khoon Maaf), maybe his script was too twisted (Kaminey), maybe his setting was too perplexing (Maqbool), but his sense of what's important for the movie could never be questioned. With MKBKM this did not hold true. It was as if, unable to choose which scenes would get the most laughs, or the most emotional support, Vishal just decided to leave them all in and let people choose their own adventure. Not an unpardonable sin, for sure, but an unexpected slip from such a confident director.

That said, I've always adored his sense of humour, even in films that were not meant to be comedies, so how could I not love the first film where he goes all out on the LOLs? And as it turns out, despite the uneven pace, a few days later I still laugh out loud thinking about some of the scenes in MKBKM, having forgotten all the times when the film fumbled. Now some would say that a few scenes are not enough to make a decent movie, and I would normally agree. But if you add to those scenes a wicked soundtrack (with picturizations to match), exquisite visuals (a VB trademark), a superb performance from its leading actor (no, not Imran Khan, the real leading actor) and a pink buffalo, then it's a different conversation altogether. Because, and this is key, in order to fully enjoy Matru ki Bijlee you have to always keep in mind that it's the kind of movie where there is a pink buffalo, sitting on a bed, laughing. And if you shrugged your shoulders or raised your eyebrow reading that, I suggest you skip this one, I doubt you'll consider your money well spent.

The film begins with the most hilarious smoking warning that essentially tells you that everything you're doing, from texting to drinking lemonade can cause you harm. As if that was not enough, the first scene sees Matru (Imran Khan) and Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapoor) driving a limousine into a liquor shop to get to their precious beer on a dry day. Now don't get your hopes up, not everything in the film will have you howling with laughter as these two scenes did. But there will be plenty more where that came from, that's for sure.

What I love about Bhardwaj's sense of humour (and not to take anything away from the execution, but I'll get to that in a minute) is that he plays so well with contradictions. So when a drunk Harry Mandola leads a procession against himself, complete with the best song on the soundtrack, you don't even go WTF!, you skip straight to laughing because it just makes sense.

Similarly, when the power-hungry politician asks why the fields that she was going to seize from the villagers are now singing with bountiful crops, and she gets the answer: "It rained. On time.", you once again crack up because nothing in India is EVER on time and it's so hilarious that something being on time can actually ruin one's plans.

Then of course there are the more subtle ironies, which are even more satisfying. One of my favourites involves Matru taking the plight of the farmers to a multi-million, multi-national company with offices in a sky-scraper in order to get the grains sold overseas. This in the context of preventing a local multi-million company from seizing the lands and building what? A mall and some skyscrapers. It's a scene that seems a little bit tacked on and I wondered for a while why it was even in the film, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced Vishal Bhardwaj was fully aware of the irony of this situation.

And lest I forget, the most delectable irony of them all is Harry Mandola himself, a character who is more of a human being when drunk than sober. Only Bhardwaj could even think of such a character. In a world where entire films get made about abusive drunkards and about the tragic consequences of alcoholism (and nothing against that, awareness is a great thing), Mandola is a man who is not only fun and loving when drunk, but he actually has us cheering against his attempts at staying on the wagon because sobriety turns him into a cold-hearted greedy realist.

Then again, on the topic of contradictions, it's interesting to notice that not just Mandola, but every important character in the film has an alter ego that prevents them from doing the right thing (or that serves as a mask when they do it). No one is who they seem to be, everyone has something to hide about themselves. A theme that comes back again and again throughout the film in covert or explicit ways. For crying out loud, there are two avatars even for the pink buffalo! And this alter ego motif extends somehow to the entire film: a social satire disguised sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as serious drama. If only the two sides had been weaved together as well as the two Harrys, or the two Matrus, or the two Bijlees.

And I can't move on without mentioning a contradiction that is very close to my heart (and I say this tongue in cheek, as always), namely the fight to preserve an agrarian society (deemed ethically superior to the capitalist pigs) made possible by the leadership of a communist icon (or rather his Indian avatar): Mao. And I won't even begin on this one, I'll just say it always amuses me that this rivalry still exists and it still makes for entire movie plots. It's like love at first sight, it simply won't go away.

It's almost redundant to speak about performances in a Vishal Bhardwaj film because, well, they're always stellar. And certainly the man is doing everyone a favour by having the fabulous Pankaj Kapoor do what he does best: act. Please, Vishal, keep him in business forever so he doesn't get any more ideas about directing. Okay, thanks! Seriously though, I've always liked Pankaj Kapoor and I always looked forward to his performance in a movie, but in this film he outdoes himself. The drunken mumbles, the deadpan expressions, the sleazy-flirty passes at Shabana's character (whose over the top delivery reminded me of her delicious character in Makdee), the zest with which he throws himself into the songs, Pankaj Kapoor is a one-man-show that keeps you entertained even when the rest of the film falters. Truly an outstanding performance for which he will probably not even see a nomination because such is the way the world turns.

The film's supporting actors (because next to Kapoor everyone else is just filler) all do a good job, though I'm sad to say that for all the support I have given him over the years this is the first time when Imran Khan disappoints me. It doesn't help that he's never looked hotter and that his chemistry with Anuskha Sharma delivers one of the most intense kisses we've seen in Bollywood (as an aside, I think I have a soft spot for women throwing themselves at him, it totally worked for me in Delhi Belly too).

So with all this good stuff helping him, I would have expected to love him in this, and yet his performance is the weakest link in this film. I can't put my finger on it because I've seen him deliver better in similar situations in other films, but something was missing from this performance. Then again... dude knows how to rock a beard and earrings, so that gets him off the hook. This time.

Anushka Sharma still has my vote even though I was hoping to see a different role from her. And to be fair, in this one, her trademarked sunny disposition turns out to be nothing but a cover-up for the disappointments in her life. If her poor rich girl character had been a little more developed there was definitely room for Anushka to experiment with a more serious role. But no matter. She does this role well so I'm ok with seeing a good thing repeated. Plus, give it to Vishal to include some cheeky dialogues about her penchant for skimpy clothing. Nothing like a good dose of meta-commentary.

Sadly, for all the good stuff crammed in this film, there is also room for plenty of details that don't quite work. For example as much as I appreciated the tribal vibe of the songs, and for all my love of a woman who can deliver a good booty-shake, the inclusion of the South African performers was completely gratuitous and poorly justified. Either that or I didn't get the joke. Maybe I'll get it when I see the film again this week.

In the meantime I'll just keep laughing to myself at all the clever dialogues and all the quirky visuals because they're the main reason why this film worked for me. They don't seem to have been enough for most reviewers, so unfortunately this is not a one-size-fits-all movie, but then comedy hardly ever is. And it's safe to assume that most reviewers are not as easily distracted by eye-candy as me. Uff!

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (Hindi, 2013)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Starring: Pankaj Kapoor, Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Shabana Azmi, Arya Babbar
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj