Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Finnish films that remind me of Indian films.

I try to keep this blog as on-topic as possible; no reviews of non-Indian movies or movies not at all relating to the country or the diaspora. But I have to make an exception with this post because the topic wouldn't leave me alone.

We'll start from the modern. Tyttö sinä olet tähti (international title "Beauty and the Bastard" is topically accurate but the direct translation would be "Girl you are a star") is a romantic comedy directed by newcomer Dome Karukoski. The set-up is classic; Nelli, a girl from a well-off family, and Sune, a boy from a not-really-well-off family. What unites them is music; Nelli aspires to become an r'n'b singer whereas Sune's a part of an underground hiphop group. He agrees to help her make a demo even though he thinks r'n'b is a disease more than it's a style of music, and this kicks off their eventual love story.

So there is the Romeo&Juliet-esque set up, music plays an important part in the movie (though it's mostly heard as background score and in a couple of performances) and the film is unabashedly romantic. But what really makes TSOT redolent of Indian cinema is the faith that the director has to the format and the story. It's no doubt a fluffy film, but the director gets that, and is not ashamed of the fact - instead he goes all out to make the best fluffy film he possibly could, and succeeds brilliantly. Characters, execution, comedy, romance - it all just works. It's a pet peeve of mine that many film makers outside India (and admittedly, also within it) tend to have a huge disregard for the romantic film genre even though they make films that belong to it. So no wonder if the results are boring, the characters unrelatable and the story evokes zero emotion in the viewer.

One more thing that made me think of Indian films was the use of kisses in the film. The director saves the kiss until the very end of TSOT, and it works perfectly. It was originally Indian cinema that made me realize that kisses don't make a movie romantic; a good story along with actors who share on-screen chemistry do. Whether you have kisses is irrelevant, but a well-placed kissing scene can further the story or in some cases, provide a wonderful happy ending. The question is not "kissing - yes or no?" but rather, "kissing - when and why?".

Then onto a new topic: the golden age of Finnish cinema or as we call it, Suomifilmi. It resembles classic Hollywood in certain features; there was an established studio system, and stars shone brighter than ever. Pictured here are the golden pair of 1930's-1940's, Ansa Ikonen and Tauno Palo.

Finns are about as good as Indians at bashing and belittling their own cinema - though one might argue that considering the popularity of Finnish films abroad (virtually nonexistant) and even domestically (rising but not big), Finns are more allowed to do so. Suomifilmi-productions are often rather populist and it's fair to say that the cinemas of other Nordic countries at the time are more accomplished. The type of language that is used in the films is nowadays parodied. The acting they contained was rather exaggerated and theatrical, a fact that is also included in parodies.

Anyway, it was a classic Tamil film called Thillana Mohambal that reminded me of this Suomifilmi school of acting. This is by no means a bad thing; I enjoyed the 1968 Sivaji Ganesan-starrer immensely, and it introduced me partly to the Carnatic music/Bharatanatyam dancing traditions of South-India that I've later grown to love. It's difficult to elaborate the association I had, especially for people who've seen neither TM or Suomifilmi. It was something to do with the mood of the film and dialogue delivery, perhaps also to do with the acting of side characters; Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini, the grand pair of the era and stars of the film, were more understated in their performances than the rest. (The music of the film, by the way, is exquisite.)

As far as specific Suomifilmi favourites of mine go, I recall adoring two films especially; Prinsessa Ruusunen (The Sleeping Beauty), a costume drama of the fairytale and Vaimoke (Pretend-Wife), a light romantic film where a spunky young woman (Ansa Ikonen) teaches a flirt (Tauno Palo) a lesson. I sincerely doubt either are available on DVD with English subtitles, so most of you won't be able to check them out. For that reason, I won't ramble about them in length.

So while most of you won't be able to get your hands on most of the films discussed here, I hope this was interesting and - if nothing else - slightly educative.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A reading break with Omkara.

Filmiholic made me aware of a little book called Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief by Stephen Alter, a fantastic little inside look at the Hindi film industry as well as a making of the Vishal Bharadwaj film Omkara. It's fun read all around, and more than anything else, I love getting a true behind-the-scenes look at how the film came into being.

Omkara is not a film I've rewatched countless times. I adore it to pieces and it is among my favourites, easily, but as far as rewatching goes, the film is a little difficult to approach. Whereas most Hindi films will provide some sort of an emotional rollercoaster for their viewers, this adaptation of the Shakespeare play Othello is a tragedy by nature. It overwhelms me every time I see it.

The emotional turmoil this movie puts me through almost makes me wish it wasn't so good. Because that's truly what Omkara is, an all-around well-crafted movie, whether it's direction, music, script or cinematography. Alter's book made me feel like I was on set, and I especially enjoyed reading about the work of the director of photography, Tassaduq Hussein. Every frame of the film seems so carefully and beautifully composed, I was amazed that anything on a crappy Eros DVD could look so good (and the DVD surely could be better). The look and costumes of the actors is toned down and naturalistic, and the setting is a plain Uttar Pradesh village, but regardless the movie looks beautiful.

I followed the news around the movie prior to its release, and reading the book I was once again reminded by the articles that floated around as they were filming. It is somewhat ironic that the reports circulated around hair length of the current hot star couple, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Saif had been hesitant to cut his hair for the role of the villain, Langda, whereas Kareena had incredibly long hair. The reason why it amuses me now is because while these superficial things were reported maniacally by the press - the only news items of any interest about the upcoming movie - the actors were working on some of their career's best work. Saif is unlikely to get as deeply involved with a role as he did with Langda (though we can hope), and I am sure I'm not the only one who Kareena won over with her perfectly innocent, naive Dolly, who loves selflessly until the end.

Of course Alter's book delves deeper, and it helps that Omkara truly has a world of its own, with its director's stamp all over it, from the setting to the language (not your standard Hindi/Urdu/English filmi lingo, but UP slang with crude expressions that these political mobsters surely would use). I like the notion that women get bigger roles than in the Shakespeare original, it seems very true. Perhaps the least grateful female part falls on Bipasha Basu's Billo, a dancer and girlfriend of Kesu (Vivek Oberoi), and even she has plenty of character. I would elaborate more, but there are simply too many things to cover; so many scenes I'd want to point out, so many details to mention.

So I guess if you have not seen it yet, do! It's a powerful adaptation that stands on its own, and a perfect mix of off-beat and masala; fantastic songs and popular actors in interesting roles. And if for nothing else, watch it for the following gorgeous pictures.

(I have way too many screencaps for this movie. I feel like I've screencapped every frame, nearly.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Let's talk about ... R. Madhavan!

It isn't always easy to champion the little guy, but there are times when it truly pays off. Still, I do often ask myself, why is it that R. Madhavan, a talented actor who is also easy on the eyes, and with a handsome filmography behind him, is not as popular as he perhaps would deserve to be?

But let me first back up a bit. R. Madhavan is a Tamil actor who's also done a few Hindi films (Rang De Basanti, Guru to name the best). He debuted in Mani Ratnam's Alaipayuthey (later remade as Saathiya in Hindi) and has later collaborated with Ratnam on various occasions, producing perhaps his career's best works with the director. Married, vegetarian.. should you be interested in more biographical data, visit his Wikipedia page.

I have so many favourite performances of his to list. My first exposure was the aforementioned Alaipayuthey; the realistic struggles of the otherwise sweet married couple were touching, and while the film may have a few glitches, I was mesmerized by the chemistry, the performances, and the songs (Pachai nirame is one of the most beautiful Rahman tunes I have ever heard).

Then came Dumm Dumm Dumm, another romantic film, this time more comedic and Madhavan opposite Jyothika, my favourite Tamil actress then and now. It's hard to explain why I found him so appealing. The quality of the movies certainly helped, but there was something more to it. He had a presence on-screen that could be light and up-lifting (and my goodness, that smile) or pensive and darker, or various shades in between.

His villain in Ayitha Ezhuthu was disturbing and showed true range (of course, he is the least likely person ever to play a villainous role again), and while I won't even mention some of his early Hindi ventures, I cannot leave out Rang De Basanti and Guru. Both small roles, mere side characters in a way, but left such an impact on the movie, and hopefully its audience. (And if not, at least we fangirls swooned.)

Madhavan or 'Maddy' is a misfit, in a way. On various fronts, I think he will always be appreciated as a capable actor, I doubt he will ever hit mega-stardom, though technically he has all the right ingredients. But even for all his bilingual glory, Maddy simply just seems stuck in character actor pool in Hindi cinema, and not quite fitting the action hero roles of Tamil popular cinema, somewhat outcast there as well. Though I suppose it's possible Maddy is comfortable in his niche - a mix of masala and something more challenging every once in a while.

And if nothing else, I very much look forward to a DVD release of his best movie last year, Evano Oruvan. While I wait for that, I can always rewatch the song of the same name from Alaipayuthey. It was, after all, what made me fall in love with Madhavan in the first place.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The metaphysics of a naach girl. Sharafat.

If Kajol and Shahrukh together is the hook that pulled me into the world of Hindi cinema, Dharmendra and Hema Malini as a jodi was the thing that intrigued me to explore 70's Hindi films further; had they not come along, I probably wouldn't have been so driven to view as many films as I have so far.

Sharafat is the couple's second movie, released five years prior to Sholay (the film that made me a fan). It partly has a very 60's feel to it, perhaps most importantly in terms of hair style, make-up and Dharmendra's character. As I understand it, the man moved from virtuous, gentleman-like hero roles into more action-focused macho roles (perhaps entirely thanks to the influence of the classic Veeru role).

In this movie he plays Rajesh, a young college professor who notices many of his students visit a brothel. He asks the courtesan Chanda (Hema Malini) not to allow the students visiting, and she agrees, but on one condition: he must give her private lessons on the subjects he teaches at the college. He agrees, and love is naturally born of the contract, but even more important is the decency of Chanda's character; how she lost it, whether she lost it, and if she can gain it back.

I'm not sure if I ever quite took in the story or the message of Sharafat; I enjoyed the story as it was happening, but months after watching I have to look at the back of the DVD box for plot details. I guess I took the film on a more superficial level - Hema and Dharmendra look young and gorgeous, Hema performs a number of dazzling dance numbers and the film is visually a lovely watch. Their chemistry is present, but not striking here. Nevertheless, it's impressive how well Hema stands against the more experienced co-star, and acts against such legends as Ashok Kumar (who plays a crucial role in this movie).

Sharafat is one of those melodramatic movies that is neither engrossing or annoying. Mostly it's focused on the concept of decency and how society views Chanda, a prostitute, and why naturally her love with Rajesh, a respectable professor, simply will not do. Basically, the title word gets repeated so many times in the dialogue, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that sharafat = decency.

However, to everybody and anybody who enjoy Dharmendra-Hema and/or Hema Malini's dancing, it is worth at least one watch.

(Side note; I am currently simply reviewing the films I have screencaps for on my hard drive. These are not necessarily films I have seen recently, some I've not viewed for over a year. So apologies if my memories are not too fresh. Eventually I will have to move onto movies I have seen more recently - like my last viewed film, Aaja Naachle - but all with time..)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The two Meeras.

With so many films produced in India per annum, movies with the exact same titles are bound to happen. Sometimes it's a coincidence, other times it's a reworking of the same story. In this case, the Hindi film Meera from 1979 has absolutely nothing to do with the Tamil film Meera from 1992. The only thing they have in common is the fact that I have viewed them both.

The films directed by the lyricist and writer Gulzar are usually wonderful, unique and paced like a lengthy poem, moving slowly but lyrically. Meera is a story of a Rajput princess (Hema Malini) who only has love in her heart for the Hindu god Krishna. The story is of course based on the legend of Mirabai, a Hindu saint. Vinod Khanna portrays her husband, who struggles with Meera's devotion to loving Krishna.

When I first saw the film, I was enthralled. Hema Malini's beauty and presence capture Meera's absolute faith, the sets and costumes look regal, the music is fitting hymns and Vinod Khanna (the first I ever saw of him, in fact) blew me away as a man conflicted in his caring for Meera and bafflement of how all-encompassing her faith is. The movie moved with the pace of a slug but I didn't fast-forward a single second in spite of the fact.

It's difficult for me to see Hema Malini, my absolute favourite Hindi actress, critisized, though I admit that while a favourite, she is not the best actress, certainly. Her performance in Meera and many others has been called stony, stoic to a fault, and while I can see where the criticism comes from, I disagree. She is probably better at livelier characters, but Meera comes off as silently strong, which I love, and having read the legend (though not claiming to be an expert on it), it strikes true for me.

Of course, the real find in this film, when I first saw it and even after some rewatches, is Vinod Khanna. Not only is he perhaps the most attractive actor of his time (to me anyhow), he possesses this magnificent pull that draws so much attention away from Meera's struggles for her faith to the character of Rana and his inner turmoil.

So, where the Hindi Meera is fascinating, memorable and by all means a recommended film, the Tamil film by the same title from early 1990's is none of those things. I hear it's universally regarded as crap, and after having seen it, I can conclude this to be true.

P.C. Sreeram's debut direction opens with a young woman named Meera (played by Ishwarya) wanting to give birth at her former school. Why? She will tell you, in a film-long flashback. Long story short, she met a guy named Jeeva (played by Vikram, my reason to watch the movie), hated his guts, then got into a world of trouble, ran away from home and he accompanied (and by accompanied, I actually mean stalked) her, to help her out of that world of trouble and such altruistic things.

The movie is, plain and simple, really bad. Jeeva comes off a jerk who takes liberties at touching Meera (back off buddy, she's just not that into you) and Meera is pretty much hysteric throughout the entire movie. First because she hates Jeeva, then because she loves him. The songs are bizarre and cheesy, and the violence is laughably gruesome. I fast-forwarded every single scene with the villain, it was simply that bad.

Vikram's acting is not good, but then, I suppose in a role like this, how could it be. Ishwarya's acting, on the other hand, is sufficient but does not improve the movie. Number one saving grace of the movie is Vikram occasionally looking very nice. Number two saving grace of the movie is my own appreciation for the most bizarre, puzzling song picturizations. Like the one where the heroine is bathed by an elephant, after being shown dressed in drag. If you can find logic in that symbolism, please tell me.

Or why this college generation celebrating song has this sort of choreographies? Or why the hero plays the heroine like a violin in one song? I am genuinely curious. Of course, it could simply be that there is no inner logic to these things, and the director has simply thrown in whatever he thought might sell. It doesn't save this film from being mostly a trainwreck, however. The boring villain, the ridiculous violence, the unsympathetic love story and a couple of peculiar plot twists all add up to not much. Watch it drunk, or don't watch it at all. You're probably better off with the latter, unless a huge Vikram enthusiast such as myself.

So there you have it. Two movies called Meera and it should be no surprise to anybody which comes out on top. Of course, views may differ. Any fans of the Tamil Meera are free to stand up and voice their disagreement; in fact I would be interested in hearing whether it really is universally regarded as crap. Similarly, I'm sure Gulzar's film will not be everybody's favourite; it is far too slow-paced for a portion of viewers.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The world of Bala. Pithamagan, Sethu, Nandha.

The cruelest of worlds is not the one that kills you; it's the one that kills the ones you love. It's this world that Tamil director Bala conveys in his films - a world of outsiders, struggling to make it, but not completely without hope. There are always glimpses of light, of humor. But there is also a spiral that seems inevitable, one of violence and grimness.

Sethu (check bollywoodblog.de for screencaps) launched Bala as a director, and made Vikram into a reckoned name in the industry. The success of the film lead to a pretty known Hindi remake of it, Tere Naam starring Salman Khan and Bhumika Chawla - a film I've not seen. Sethu is a destructive story of desperate love - stalking the one you love, pestering her endlessly is not alien to Indian love stories, but the story here does not end as happily as it typically does.

Vikram, whose nickname 'Chiyaan' comes from this movie (it's a nickname of the title character), proves his worth with this performance, though I was already a fan when I put this movie on. The transformation of the character is tragic, and partly incomprehensible; his co-star Abitha is plain-looking, and possesses no charisma whatsoever. Why Sethu falls so madly in love with her, I still haven't figured out. Why he goes through hell for her is equally puzzling.

The film may lack the layers that made Pithamagan, Bala's third film, one of my absolute favourites, but it is by no means a bad movie. I wasn't attached to the characters and still remained glued to my seat.

Nandha is a tragedy that taps into a central theme in Indian movies; family bonds, and those bonds falling apart. Nandhaa (Surya) is but a child when he defends his mother against an abusive father, and ends up committing patricide. After serving his prison sentence, he returns home, only to have his mother deny him.

The film is perhaps my least favourite Bala film, but even then an interesting watch. Where Sethu made Vikram a star, Nandha gives Surya Sivakumar a chance to portray an interesting character, and Surya does well with the role - many say this film changed him into a good actor, period. Laila plays a Srilankan refugee whose character provides a slightly more light-hearted romantic storyline to the movie. While her acting skills are limited, she has a lovely presence and definite chemistry with Surya.

It's also interesting to see such positive portrayal of Srilankan Tamils in a Tamil film. I've heard that Tamil Nadu people tend to have a slightly negative attitude toward Srilankan Tamils as they are known for their violent actions (Tamil Tigers and what have you). This film portrays Tamil unity; according to subtitles, one song claims, "Tamils are always great!".

Pithamagan is the Bala film I saw first, and one that blew me away. In it, Vikram plays Chiththan, who grows up in a cemetary, cared for by a neglectful priest. When the priest dies, Chiththan wanders into the real world, meets a female drug dealer (Sangitha) who helps him land a job. Being unaccostumed to human company, having always lived in seclusion, Chiththan cannot cope, however, and lands himself in more trouble than previously. Through these ordeals he meets Sakthi (Surya), a humorous conman, who befriends Chiththan and begins to look after him.

Some have questioned the realism of Vikram's character - can a man truly be so animal-like in his behavior? While the details of the character might not be correct (eg. his small proficiency in language), I believe in theory it is very possible, though of course unlikely. Bala is inspired by seclusion; sometimes it works for the character's benefit, sometimes being an outsider is the one thing that leads to their destruction. There is so much I could say about Vikram's performance here. It's unsettling, believable and tragic all at the same time.

I have talked about Surya and Laila, the film's other stars before in a post about Vivah and Pithamagan. Their romantic storyline is funny, and sweet, though in a very Bala-sort of way, with some disturbing elements thrown in.

Another great aspect of Pithamagan, or perhaps the best aspect of it, is the interaction between Surya and Vikram. I doubt we'll see them together in a movie again, since Tamil films do not typically contain two heroes - and that's their status nowadays, no doubt about it - but in this film, their characters have an odd, but touching connection and friendship.

Soundtracks are not typically strong suits of Bala films; they contain more haunting melodies that reveal character mental atmospheres than catchy tunes one can shake a leg to. However, there is one track that has to mentioned: a stand-out remix of old Tamil film tunes title Aruna ruunam, featuring actress Simran as herself (in fabulous irony, Simran is one of the heroines that has her dialogues dubbed by somebody else).

I rarely call myself a fan of a director - for one directors are even less reliable in quality than actors, at times, and for two, there is hardly anybody whose specific style I've fallen in love with. However, should Bala ever make another film (his last one was in 2003!), I would definitely want to see it. His world may be gloomy and his characters more or less hopeless, but there is something utterly captivating in them nevertheless.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The good ol' days. Hum hai rahi pyaar ke.

How should I say this.. The title of the post is not me looking down on modern cinema, wistful for a time period in the past. It's just that Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke reminds me of the sad fact that thanks to the years that separate present day and early 1990's, when the film was released, it's unlikely we'll see another Aamir Khan-Juhi Chawla collaboration as delightful as this one. (The reasons are probably known to most Bollywood lovers but in short; there was an argument between them and even though they later made up, their relationship has not been the warmest since, though I'm sure both respect each other.)

But I suppose I shouldn't dwell on the negatives. Regardless of whether we'll ever see Juhi-Aamir jodi again, HHRPK is one of my absolute favourite 90's romcoms. In fact, I rate it above the first and very popular Juhi-Aamir film, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. QSQT is not a bad film, by any means, but HHRPK is more my thing; innocent, fun fluff that also has its emotional moments.

The story is simple; Aamir plays a man whose brother and sister-in-law die in a car accident. Besides the family business, he now has to look after his two nephews and a niece, who can be quite a handful. Juhi, on the other hand, is a Tamil girl whose strict father is forcing her into a marriage that she opposes (with a groom who dances Bharatanatyam - the South-Indian presentation some may find disagreeable in the film, I personally do not mind, however). She runs off and ends up meeting the kids Aamir is looking after at a fair. They play tricks together and she ends up telling the kids her unfortunate situation; no place to go spend the night. The kids agree to let her stay over at their house, and Aamir discovers a new housemate the next morning..

Just writing about the film makes me want to rewatch it! Typically, child actors and child characters in light-hearted movies like this one, particularly when they play a huge role in the story, can be rather grating for me. Not in here! Juhi and Aamir naturally have excellent chemistry (and some cute kissing scenes!), and Juhi especially portrays her character well - I believe she won a Filmfare award for this one. Her comic timing is suberb, too.

The comedy in the movie is much of the silly slapstick variety, which may not go down with everybody, but I don't have any complaints. I've certainly seen worse, and the few comedy scenes that didn't hit the right mark, I can shrug off considering the overall quality of the film.

A stand-out song sequence was definitely Ghoongat ki aadh se.

(I've mostly been posting very positive reviews as of late. I can't help it. Every time I sit down to type something down, I feel myself drawn to write about some lovely movie I adore and want to recommend to others. Maybe next time I'll most something more critical.)