Saturday, June 28, 2008

Making of a tigress. Laal Patthar.

I can't remember if Hema-ji herself ever referred to her role in Laal Patthar as 'villainous' but I distinctly remember somebody describing it as such to me. Did this person watch the same movie as me, or are their memories of it just so hazy that they mistook this interesting, multifaceted role as simply a negative one, I'm not sure, but I would not call Hema Malini's character in the movie a villain at all. If anything, the movie steers clear of the classical villain types and presents us with the evil within us all instead.

Raaj Kumar plays a prince, who has vowed not to marry or drink because of a curse that runs in his family. Then one day while hunting for a tiger, he runs into a kidnapped girl, Saudamini (Hema) who he takes eventually takes as his lover (but not his wife). He tries to educate her, but she's lazy and obnoxious, and refuses to bend to his will. Decades later, he meets a young girl with a beautiful voice, Sumita (Rakhee), who he decides to take as his wife. Saudamini, now renamed Madhuri, is not happy to see another woman entering the household she has been in charge of for so long, but the difficult relations begin to unfold and of course, there is blood to be spilled.

The film is not flawless in the least, though it brought up a lot of thoughts in me, which I will get to later on. Raaj Kumar is very effective in the role (though I did not like his character), and this is definitely among Hema's strongest performances. The character she plays has layers that appear as the film goes along, and she's definitely not just a negative character. Laal Patthar is without a mainstream film, but it does manage to portray some rather non-stereotypical characters.

Very mainstream - or should I say masala - is also the symbolism used in the movie, cross-cutting that hammers a lot messages home a little too clearly. Not that I was looking for sublty but there were a couple of eyeroll moments here and there.

The soundtrack is standard, with one number that got stuck in my head, if only for the fact it was on the DVD menu. "Geet gaata hoon main" is sung by a character named Shekhar, played by Vinod Mehra, who has ties to Sumita. He becomes very important in the last third of the movie, which I will get to now.

The following part part is not so much a review but thoughts on the movie, its message and character relations.

SPOILERS to the end of the movie, until mentioned otherwise.

To me the true villain of the story is Kumar Bahadur (the princely title used for Raaj Kumar's character here). As a powerful scene - among the most powerful I have ever seen Hema-ji in - towards the end of the movie proves, he's merely been using Madhuri, wanting to shape her into the woman of his dreams without considering at all what she herself is really like. It's very telling that he's smitten with her up until the moment she speaks. She's but a doll, a plaything and when she opens her mouth and the cruel reality of the situation he put himself in becomes apparent, he casts her aside emotionally. He doesn't even try to love her for who she is and doesn't consider her feelings at all when bringing in a new girl into his house, one that is all that he hopes for.

In the end, it's him who performs the cruelest of things, playing people to his own revenge for suspicions that end up not even being true. And yet who does he blame for these things that he does? He blames a curse, a curse named after a woman, even though it is his own weakness to start drinking, his own paranoia that sets off the series of events. He blames Madhuri, even though she is nothing but a victim of unfortunate circumstances, and has merely adapted to the situation of being a lover to a man who will not marry her and does not love her (even though she loves him fiercely). He sees her as the reason, as the evil entity, even though the true evil is within himself, the thing that he gives into.

But what really interests me, or rather appalls me, is the fact that in the end, Madhuri stands by his side to the bitter end. Why does her love forgive these things, this emotional neglect for all those years, those hurtful words he's said to her? He deserves the fate he ends up with, and I find it somehow awful that she should be stuck with his fate as well. He loves Sumita and Sumita (to my disappointment, as she too would've deserved better) loved him back. Madhuri need not be in the equasion. The ending, and its message, annoys me no end. It's his fault that she became as she is, and he blames her for this. And yet she is not given the liberty to walk away from him - no, her love for him ties her forever to him, no matter what a horrible man he may be.


The message of the film, if I understood it correctly, is annoying to me to say the least. Perhaps there's another way of looking at this - I am very open to different interpretations and am glad the story brought up such strong reactions in me. A negative reaction is better than no reaction, and by no means is Laal Patthar a bad film. It's an okay film, with pros (Hema's performance) and cons (the ending). Should you be keen on seeing Hema Malini's personal favourite out of her own performances, definitely give it a try.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Who's your daddy. Eklavya: the Royal Guard.

Eklavya is the film made famous not by its quality, its cast or its box office success (or even lack thereof) but rather the fact that India sent it to the Oscars and then retrieved it, after a scandal of the decision panel being biased (namely, one or two of the judges being involved in the making of the film itself). Some Indian film makers commented on the scandal and on the film, and the director Vidhu Vinod Chopra threw a public hissyfit, not doing himself or his film a favor - most people I saw commenting on the polemic didn't side with VVC.

But let's talk about the movie. I followed the promotion of it pre-release, being excited for the return of the Parineeta jodi Saif-Vidya, as well as Boman Irani, Amitabh, Sanjay Dutt and Sharmila Tagore in a special appearance. The film was delayed several times (never a good sign) and on my first watch of it, I was immensely disappointed. The story of Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan), a guard of the royal court of Devigarh, in a world where the traditionalist views no longer seem to matter, and Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), the prince seeing both the tradition and beyond it, seemed somehow empty. What could've been a wonderfully complex tale gets squeezed into just under two hours, and the one song number only seems distracting. There is enormous potential in the cast of talented actors, the interesting set-up and amazing pictures - the cinematography of the film remains memorable. But even so, I was left feeling frustrated. It's simply not as good as it could be, or even as good as it should be.

A year goes by and eventually I bought the DVD, because I'm superficial and will purchase any movie where Saif Ali Khan looks this good in. In the back of my head I also knew I'd have to rewatch it one day and give it the benefit of the doubt. Rewatches often shape my views on films a lot - for better or for worse.

The second time around I understood the core of the story better. VVC is not an amazing director, and the family melodrama that he sinks into the plot of Eklavya is similar to the other film I've seen by him, Mission Kashmir. In many ways this film tries to be a Hollywoodian Hindi movie, but sticks its roots firmly in the filmi traditions of familial bonds, in such a way that it just feels cliché. On my second viewing, I was more accepting of this fact, but even after I've come to terms with the fact, the film is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The imagery is gorgeous, some of the performances are great (Saif, biased as I may be saying this, gives his character some interesting depth, Sanjay Dutt as a lower caste cop has only a few scenes but is very effective in them, Boman Irani delivers and I once again adored Raima Sen) and certain scenes really stand out in their execution (a certain dark scene, the narration during the credits, the final confrontation).

All in all, I wish this film had a better script - one that gave screen time to the backstory and all the different characters, their motivations and thoughts. It's basically a Bollywood story with a Hollywood script, and this is why both need to play on their own yards for now. The longwindedness of Indian cinema, the jumps in time and place, the song numbers that take place in the plane of imagination, all of these lend to the storytelling of a good Hindi film. When you take away all of that, what's left isn't a good film - at best its a summary of a good film, which is exactly what Eklavya feels like.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The good, the bad and the misunderstood. Tashan.

It's a little bit weird to review a movie such as Tashan, which received a lot of hype prior to its release but never lived up to the expectations of the audience. Critics were less than fond of it, as well, and pretty much all of the Hindi movie loving crowd rejected the film. Of course there were things other than the film's quality that affected this catastrophic box office success; promotion was far from aggressive, and it clouded the film's actual plot in mystery. The director Vijay Krishna Acharya discussed the movies of his youth and how he and producer Aditya Chopra modelled the promotion according to those days; the days when you knew next to nothing about a film and had hardly seen a trailer when walking into the theater.

This promotional campaign, no matter how unuseful, was not the only thing Acharya took from the 1970's Hindi cinema. In a brilliant essay on 70's masala, Tashan and Om Shanti Om, Filmi Girl details all the throwbacks that make this film indeed seem like a grandchild of the days when Ajit was the villain, Amitabh was the hero and Pran featured in nearly every film you would see. Another fantastic review that gave me a bundle of interesting things to ponder regarding the movie was that of Qalandar's, which focuses on the topic of language in the movie - the Hindi, the English, which the characters speak and understand, and how this reflects them and their importance in the film. (Both of the linked reviews contain spoilers so surf carefully!)

The thoughts sparked by these reviews mark at least one thing - Tashan may be the brainchild of Dhoom 2 writer Acharya, but it is a far cry from the metro-crowd pleasing sleek action that the Hrithik starrer provided us with. In Tashan you have sand-dust and blood, revenge and betrayal. The true masala dish is also spiced with an awkward 'item number' where Kareena attempts to shake the booty Aditya Chopra told her to diet off, but the brief song scene is about the only thing that really reminds you of the writer's previous work.

The movie begins with Saif Ali Khan's Jeetender who in true urban fashion has turned into Jimmy, an English-speaking, English-thinking call center executive and part-time English teacher. He addresses the camera directly and brags about his lady conquests - the combination is somehow a turn-off and generally I regard the beginning quite poor. It alienates even me, the biggest Saif fan, by presenting a character that is like a poor, exaggerated replica of his characters in Salaam Namaste and Hum Tum. Jimmy meets Pooja (Kareena Kapoor), a beautiful girl asking for help, which leads him to teaching Anil Kapoor's cartoon-y villain Bhaiyyaji English. Jimmy is less concerned with teaching English, however, as he is with oggling at the beautiful Pooja. As luck would have it, though, she turns out to be quite the bag of tricks, leading Bhaiyyaji to call Bachchan Pande (Akshay Kumar), an UP wannabe-gangster, to work with Jimmy and catch the girl who cannot be trusted.

After the story truly kickstarts, following Pooja's disappearance and especially Bachchan Pande's powerful and amusing entrance, Tashan transforms from an awkward, messily narrated film into a fun masala ride that endeared me to its characters, its performances and its storyline. It's by no means the perfect film - besides the beginning, there are a few scenes and few plot diversions I think could be smoother or just better, but overall, I really enjoyed it both of the two viewings I've given it so far.

Saif's character Jimmy I only began to warm up to half-way through my second watch. It helps to see the character as the opposite of Bachchan - the illiterate who speaks a Kanpur-accented Hindi versus the urban English-speaker achiever. They don't have a lot of scenes together, but the relationship is important to the film, though it's clear that one learns more from the other than vice versa. On the other hand, Kareena's Pooja is the truly central character. While Akshay has the presence to carry the story, and he is easily many people's favourite thing about it (indeed Bachchan combines beautifully a lot of the things that Akshay can pull off - the comedic fool, the action hero, the romantic lead), Pooja brings something that Hindi film heroines sometimes lack. Not only does she kick ass and take names, she has the guts to toy with the male characters, and at the same time, have a vulnerable side to her. And despite her slightly too skinny form, Kareena looks gorgeous in the movie.

The film has its share of whacky moments, most importantly the song picturization of "Dil dance maare", which has an explanation and an amusing context in the film, but still makes you ask, "what the hell were they thinking?". Regardless, maybe the explanation is that they were thinking. The lyrics of the song read as a Hinglishized parody for Bollywood song clichés. Instead of 'gori gori', you get 'white white'. Is it a Hinglish song to mock Hinglish songs? Whatever it is, it's not to be taken seriously.

I'm a big fan of the soundtrack. Vishal-Shekhar have provided the movie an Indian rock sound, heard as electric guitar on several tracks and especially in the title song which brings some definite attitude. It's not everybody's thing, but as somebody who used to mostly listen to American rock before Hindi tunes came to my life, it suits me perfectly. Out of the picturizations, besides the crazy fun "Dil dance maare", my heart belongs to the beautiful "Falak tak", featuring Kareena and Akshay in various Indian locations.

Action movies have been far too sleek nowadays, but this film offers up rough and dirty fight scenes in an abundance. The action director Peter Hein has previously worked in the South, but while entertaining in here, I think his best work remains in the Tamil industry, for example the recent Rajni film Sivaji. Regardless, the scenes fit in the tradition of Hindi films - the gore of the post-Sholay industry. No bullets or wire-work go spared, and it could certainly be better, but I enjoyed a lot nonetheless.

Anil Kapoor's Bhaiyyaji is a confusing combination of a twisted, cold-hearted killer, and an amusing villain who speaks funnily. Regardless, the man is perfect for the role, and it's quite a wonder how accurate the overall casting for the film is. Kareena is given a very cool female role which she pulls off well, everybody but Saif as Jimmy would be a knock-off, Akshay was tailor-made for Bachchan and even the minor character casting seems pitch-perfect (the back stories of the main cast feature wonderful young talents).

If I have one major complaint to voice about Tashan, it would be the use of the title in the film itself, which strikes me as horribly gimmick-like. The look of the characters is mostly inconsequential and for example Saif's moustache does nothing but give me the creeps. To say any film is about "style" is to undermine its story and heighten the superficial qualities and despite what people may say, this is not a vapid film. It's a film like any film - made to entertain, but to call it stupid is to ultimately sell it short. But I suppose in the end the 'tashan' of Tashan is not about hair or looks, it's about the 'style within', the attitude and confidence.

A list of filmi fondness topics.

Random pic of Hema Malini, from the film Dillagi (1978).

In my blog's sidebar I have listed a bunch of things I enjoy in Indian films. For all the crap Hindi films get about being "all the same", there's an admirable amount of variety in there, and after having seen a fair amount of films, you tend to recognize what sort of things you enjoy, and what you don't. Of course, I have favourites in actors, actresses, music directors, playback singers and directors - sometimes even production houses and other crew members (I often surf cinematographers' filmographies to get a sense of their capabilities and style). Then there are things I enjoy that do not fit in these categories but are rather about genre, or plot stereotypes or something similar. I wrote the sidebar thingy as a sort of an introduction into my tastes - why somebody may disagree with it, and why somebody else may relate to it.

youthful love stories - So many examples, from DDLJ to its 21st century Telugu daughter, Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana. From QSQT to Dil Chahta Hai, Bommarillu, Kaadhal, Jab We Met. Young people falling in love is included in so many movies, and in the best ones, it's oh-so-wonderful.

comedy - I was thinking yesterday that while I agree that Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro moves slowly as hell, it's still one of the funniest comedies out there. Then you have Andaz Apna Apna, Bluffmaster, Munnabhai films, so many good ones. It ain't all Johnny Lever, and even Johnny can be good on occasion (Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega). Priyadarshan comedies rarely work for me, but I have to say Paresh Rawal in Hera Pheri and Phir Hera Pheri (and indeed the whole trio in Hera Pheri) gets me laughing every time.

women kicking ass - I believe I kind of elaborated this in my Top Five Hindi Film Heroines list but yeah, tough ladies are rare and awesome. For whatever reason, it makes me happier to see a girl kick ass in a Hindi film than an English one. Maybe it's the fact that especially in the past, girls who do a little ass-kicking (think Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini) were not sexualized graituitously. And in newer films, it seems that if the girls are wearing skimpy skin-tight outfits while doing action, the guys are also objectified equally (think Dhoom 2). It's clear that Hindi films are not ideal for displays of gender equality, but sometimes I think they get certain things very, very right.

Bharatanatyam dancing - Thillana Mohanambal, Sagara Sangamam, Sangamam... It's mostly Southie films that feature this beautiful form of dancing. Films introduced me to it and since then I'm always on a look out for BN or BN-inspired dancing.

Aamir's moustache twirl - Mangal Pandey. The best thing about Mangal Pandey (though I am in the minority who didn't absolutely hate the film).

films parodying themselves - There are a lot of movies out there that seem aware of the fact they're films, or make fun of other films, or take clichés to a parodic extreme, and a lot of those films are Indian and plenty of them are very effective with this kind of mocking about. Hindi films especially seem to often be all about paying tribute to the stars and the films of the past, as well as back-patting and laughing at its own tropes (but in a loving way). My favourite of this kind is probably the outrageously funny Andaz Apna Apna, and less goofball but also very creative and charming Jaan-e-Mann.

dishoom-dishoom - One of my favourite things on any film ever is Amitabh Bachchan making gun sound effects in Sholay. And of course, glorious 70's fight scenes is where it's at. Completely. Not to mention Tamil films and their often interestingly choreographed fight-sequences that take up much time in the movie and never fail to establish the machoness of the hero character.

Hinglish silliness - ..makes my dil go mmm. No, seriously, I understand how much it can pain the native speakers of the language to cringe at their gorgeous Hindi or poetic Urdu mangled next to the supposedly 'hip' angrezi. But I don't know, to me the most peculiar examples are usually the funniest, and the most delightful. They amuse me as much as they sometimes horrify me.

good filmi kisses - At first, discovering Bollywood meant discovering the fact that lovers on-screen do not have to kiss in order to be believable at portraying love. Your screen can be melted by sizzling chemistry even without any body contact at all (similarly two actors can make out and not have an ounce of chemistry between them). But regardless of this fact, on-screen kissing is lovely when carried out right, in the right film and in the right scene. My favourite kisses are probably in Hum Tum, Jab We Met, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Bunty aur Babli.

the way Tamil/Tamizh sounds - The first Tamil film I watched, I couldn't tell the difference between it and Hindi. Little by little, my experience grew and I began to learn the distinct sounds of Tamil, it's long words and a bit about its sentence structure, too. I'm not necessarily saying it sounds better or more beautiful than Hindi/Urdu, it's just that I really enjoy the unique sound it has.

good ol' masala - It all comes back to the reliable formula. Of course, even just the elements that masala has vary from decade to decade. And naturally every now and then it's wonderful to step out of that comfort zone and watch something from the thriller genre or artsier cinema, off-beat or just lower budget non-masala.

cheesy 90's anything - Sure the modern films may look better, be better scripted, too, and often more contain more variety in stories and subject matters. And the golden oldies are indeed golden. But 90's Hindi films have a certain appeal to them. It's the era that gave us the most important lot of stars, the uber-romantic college movies, the family value fests ala HAHK, bad hair, worse fashion, Anu Malik soundtracks you cannot get out of your head, star-studded disasters like Ishq or so-bad-it's-good Karan Arjun... 90's has it all. I'm not hopelessly infatuated with it, but I am pretty fond of it none the less, cheese and all.

Manmohan Desai - I've not seen all of his films, nowhere near it, but his name on a film is always a promise of something good, something outrageous, something exciting.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

So far, yet so close.

As soon as I get a day off, which should be Friday, I'll get around to reviewing Tashan. I basically just need more free time to type up all my thoughts in a massive, massive entry.

Warning: I liked it. I realize 90% of rest of the world did not.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The lesson of heroes and villains. Black Friday.

It's difficult to write about this movie, because ultimately I feel like my thoughts are uninteresting and not of great value compared to two other stories; the one in the film and the one of the film. The first, of course, being the story of Mumbai blasts in 1993 and the investigation that proceeded - the events that created further tension between Hindu and Muslim groups, a tension that exists to this day and has since resulted in several outbursts of violence. The relevance and the significance of this are unquestionable. The second, the tale of how director Anurag Kashyap's docu-drama about these events got to be made and eventually, after much difficulty, released, is another very interesting one. It ties into all kinds of questions about the true nature of Indian film-making; the difficulties of financing films with challenging stories, the censorship, artistic realism and the politics.

The reason why my own thoughts feel slightly irrelevant next to all of this is simply because I don't feel like I know enough to tie my thoughts into these relevant issues the film highlights - or the controversies that rose from it highlight. But then, perhaps despite the fact that this is not the usual Indian film I view (very commercial, with stars and dance numbers to some extent at least), I should simply review it as such.

Black Friday portrays the story from two perspectives, the perpetrators and the policemen, the helplessness and immorality on both sides of the fence. The only actor I recognized and knew by name in the movie was KK Menon as the police officer appointed to lead the investigation. He does his usual good job, especially as the police result to drastic measures to get answers out of people. The struggle of the character is clear.

Another actor that stood out was Pavan Malhotra as Tiger Memon, the gangster-turned-businessman who pulls the strings of the entire blast operation and covers his traces with calculating ease. I don't know if truth is stranger than fiction, but reality is certainly scarier than tales of villains in films. Forget Gabbar Singh, the true big bad of modern day is fanaticism and the way it comes off from some of the speeches of the character - based, as all characters, on a real person - is frightening.

The film is overall solidly executed on all accounts. I adore the cinematography, making Mumbai out a dusty metropolis with slums and train stations, artificial lighting and crowded streets. The music and song lyrics compliment the shots perfectly and seem to convey the messages that the film otherwise avoids making. The chronology of the narrative is a little messed up - you basically find out the story as it becomes evident to the investigators, but the jumps in time can be confusing at first.

My only complaint with the film might be that the length and the narrative make the film slow-paced at times. Perhaps it's simply a trait of the genre; docu-dramas aren't usually the type of films that suck you in and fail to let you go, especially if you're not exactly too learned on the topic matter (I only knew the basics going in). I wasn't dying to see how the film ended, but wanted to get there anyhow.

As a finishing note, I am reminded of something I once read in a Bollywood online community: "Watching Indian films tells you about India as little as eating samosas does." While it's true that there is no way cinema can be a comprehensive, definitive source of information, it has to be said that films can guide one to find out about certain things and provide food for thought. This film is based on a book by Hussain Zaidi. Perhaps that's where I'll head next.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Further firangi fame.

Wow, this is just too typical. I get e-mail interviewed and then it's a semi-random blog post that gets quoted. Still, I do rather like that there's the point to be made about non-Indian fans looking beyond the Mumbai fence for their dose of Indian cinema - I do try to maintain that mine is an Indian film blog, not a Bollywood blog since Bollywood implies Hindi and I have such a soft spot for Tamil cinema and the occasional Telugu wonder that I simply can't leave those out. Of course, regional cinema is often ignored simply because it's not as readily available for most people. And of course, some Hindi speakers don't want to read subtitles so they ignore those films. Just as well.

But anyway, here is something I wanted to be quoted on - when the journo responsible for the article asked me to compare modern stars to the past decades' big names. This was simultanously my most diplomatic answer and my least diplomatic answer.
I think each popular actor's popularity is a reflection of the times and the mindset of the audience of that era. I personally do not prefer older movies to newer ones or vice versa. I can appreciate "the angry young man" as well as Shahrukh's NRI dilwallah, Guru Dutt's tragic and poetic on-screen presence as well as Akshay Kumar's comedic Hera Pheri-avatar. This sort of variety is one of the things that makes Hindi cinema so appealing.
Why would this be my least diplomatic reply? Well, I just had this distinct feeling some people would get a heart attack upon seeing me praise Akshay Kumar and Guru Dutt in the same sentence. I couldn't imagine too actors with more different, distinct groups of fans. But hey, there you go. It's a varied field. There are a lot of good things out there. (Though I should also point out that like Amitabh's angry young man, I don't absolutely love SRK-the-NRI-lover in absolutely every movie. In moderation. Y'know.)

But yeah. Movies I hope to talk about in this blog soon: Kaadhal, Black Friday, Tashan. The first two I have seen but need screencaps for, the third is still on its way to me.

Anyhow, have a random gorgeous pic of Ileana, a Tollywood starlet. I got the photo from one of lapetitediva's picture posts, so a big thanks to her.