Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Miscellanous thoughts on the history of Bollywood, Part 1.

I won't go into detail on what inspired this post; let's just say I've been learning about these things as of late.

  • At times it really bugs me that the early history of Indian film is so hard to access - I think the earliest films available are from 1940's, maybe a few select earlier films available on DVD or as archived material (you can only access by going to India). Compare this to what you can get your hands on from the silent era of European film, or Hollywood, or Scandinavian film. It's a huge, rich context we're quite simply missing out on, and can only really read about in books and by seeing still photographs of movies.
  • Addendum: why this bugs me especially is because of the difference of Hindi film's history compared to other cinemas. The influences are different. The style is different. The context is obviously unique. Regarding the influences, I've read and heard Parsi theater, other folk theater traditions and Sanskrit aesthetics (the entire 'rasa' theory) cited as heavy influence. In a way, not being able to discuss early cinema with the voice of experience (or rather, just having seen some of these damn movies!) feels like I'm missing a very vital link. You know, I don't know if I would be interested in watching 30+ Sulochana movies or a dozen mythological silent movies, but I'd at least like to have the opportunity to do so. Basically, to see the continuity clearer from past cinema to modern cinema, would be nice, even if just to justify some of the things that make Bollywood as it is: when somebody disgards the films as overly dramatic, I could simply say, "Look, this is the tradition over there. This is the preference of the audience, throughout the ages. Why do you assume they'd be making movies according to your tastes?"
  • I feel awfully embarrassed because as much as I love Guru Dutt, I've seen such a rare few of his films. The big ones, sure, and I have Mr & Mrs 55 in the mail, arriving next week and will get to it eventually, but in comparison to my other favourites on the oldie front, it's just embarrassing. Then again, to be honest, I do find it easier to watch a nice 70's film than a 50's/60's masterpiece. There is something wrong with me like that. (By the way, if you recommend me Guru Dutt films - please do - I'd prefer ones with him as an actor, not the director.)
  • Don't you love the romanticized tragic on-screen/off-screen jodi's of the 50's? I'm talking Raj Kapoor-Nargis, Madhubala-Dilip Kumar and of course, Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman. I think out of the three, only Madhubala-Dilip is confirmed - they did date, her family didn't approve, there was a court hassle over a movie, and then they broke up, and the romanticized version of the story goes, she never stopped loving him to the event of her untimely death. Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt were married men, which makes the alleged romances with their most popular on-screen partners slightly less romantic but tragic all the same (especially Guru and Waheeda - I'm really surprised they weren't in speaking terms while filming Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam because that was my first film with the two and I adored their chemistry to pieces).
  • Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi - a movie I ought to see more like, and a movie you ought to see, period.

  • Does it ever bother anybody else that as a fan, you sometimes latch onto historically inconsequential (or maybe just-not-all-that-important) stars and films? I know I'll read and learn about 70's Hindi films, I probably won't hear a word about Vinod Khanna, and am probably lucky to hear about Dharmendra or Hema Malini unless the subject is Sholay (which the subject very well should be!). On the other hand, in the modern times, I feel like my favourites, especially in terms of movies, are the ones most people will remember in 10 years' time. It's odd.
More coming in part 2, whenever I get around to writing it up. :)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Let's talk about ...Vikram!

My third favourite Indian actor was born as John Kennedy (yes, really) in April 1966 somewhere in Tamil Nadu.

Fast forward around forty years, to January 2006, when a fellow Finnish Bollywood (and Kollywood, Mollywood..) enthusiast popped a Tamil film DVD in her computer, and we watched what was the first 30-40 minutes of a certain film titled Dhool. That evening I took the DVD home, watched the rest and for the next week revelled in the glory of this movie. I rewatched the songs, the comedy sequences, I would even put the DVD on as background music for doing homework. But I've talked about that movie enough in this post, so back to Kenny!

See, to every thesis there is the anti-thesis. Allow me to elaborate.

Thesis: All South-Indian actors are old, fat and generally unattractive with hideous moustaches and nothing compared to the stunning looks of their Hindi film counterparts.
Anti-thesis: Vikram. Surya. Madhavan. Siddharth. [others I may not know; I'm not that versed in Tamil films yet!]

Synthesis: R-E-M-O Remo Remo...

But let's get down to business, because while the man provides me with some serious eye candy, I wouldn't have gone, "Hot damn!", had I just seen pictures of him. No, it was the performances, the screen presence that warmed me to him. In the choreographed fighting sequences of Tamil action masala films, I just completely bought into the ridiculously exaggerated, macho hero characters when it was Vikram playing it. And yet, as his expression softens, he's equally convincing as a romantic hero and when you place him next to Vivek's wise-cracking comedy track, he will just as easily punctuate the scenes with his comic timing.

Am I gushing? Yes. Will I stop? No, I'm only getting started.

Because besides the masala performances, such as Dhool, Arul, Saamy and Majaa, there are the 'different' roles. I've blogged about the Bala films before, but these things bear repeating: Sethu gave Vikram his nickname "Chiyaan", as well as his comeback break after failing miserably in the early 1990's - after seeing one of his first films, Meera (discussed here), I can safely say it's no wonder. Pithamagan of course won him the National Award.

And in a bizarre league of its own stands Anniyan (blogged here), where he plays not one or two, but three characters and pulls each off with no seeming trouble whatsoever.

And to those of you who might want to see Vikram in a film, but aren't sure if you're ready for truckloads of kickass which are pretty standard to Tamil films, there is King, a light family drama where Vikram stars opposite Sneha (the Queen of Smiles as she's known). Not the perfect movie, but definitely worth a watch and not violent at all.

What brought this post on, I should mention, is news that the next Mani Ratnam film will have two versions: Hindi with Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai, and Tamil with Vikram (!) and Aishwarya Rai. Fun fact: Vikram dubbed for Abbas in the Aishwarya-starrer Kandukondain Kandukondain and ever since seeing that film, I have been dying for Vikram-Aish properly on the same screen. Looks like I'm getting my wish, let's hope the outcome is good.

Vikram's next release, Kanthasamy, on the other hand, looks this delicious:

Considering th 8 minute teaser (?!) of it, this will be epic, and possibly horrific but I anticipate it anyhow.

For John Kennedy, anything.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

God made man, tailor made gentleman. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

I rewatched Jhoom Barabar Jhoom this evening because despite the criticisms voiced against it, I just find it friggin' delightful. At the core of the movie for me are our NRI main characters, Rikki (Abhishek Bachchan being both hilariously exaggerated and at the same time genuine) and Alvira (Preity Zinta being charming and wonderful), who get to chatting after waiting for a late train at London's Waterloo station and end up narrating their own love stories to one another. Three or so song numbers later, of course, there's a twist.

The thing is, a part of wants to look at JBJ as meta-Bollywood. Rikki and Alvira are kids brought up on movies (despite her claim that she also watches "foreign language movies", Alvira surely has to be a Bollywood/Hollywood film buff at heart!), which is why their love stories are like movies in a movie, exaggerated and glamourized and of course, interwoven with song and dance sequences. Next to this, we have a bunch of other filmi references, fun performances and the delicious send up to the audience is ready to serve. Think the crackiness of Jaan-e-Mann put into the blender of the colorful world of Bunty Aur Babli, placed at Southall and you get Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

And yet what I love about the characters of Rikki and Alvira is that they're both very, for the lack of a better word, ordinary. Which is to say, they're rather British-thinking NRI young adults, both stubborn and bold and most importantly, similar. Despite the fantastical anything-can-happen world they paint for themselves, in reality they're just Girl Next Door and Boy Next Door of Southall.

To say much more is to spoil most of the deliciousness of the movie, so instead I'll talk about random points of interest. I'll be frank here: I've only seen Lara Dutta in two movies, this one and No Entry and she always surprises me! I expected her to be wooden but she turned out to be one of the few positive things I had to say about No Entry and in this movie, she simply rocks. If she got more good role opportunities, I have a feeling she could outdo the other Bollywood beauty pageant winners no problem. Something about her makes me think of a modern day Zeenat Aman. Also? Her French-accented Hindi is one of the awesomest things in the movie.

I would have similar things to say about Bobby Deol, who I was also surprised by, but I'm still not too excited about him. If his career continues to include funny side roles, though, I'll keep an eye out. Meanwhile the Dharmendra fan in me just sighs and shakes its head..

The songs of this film are so much fun, both visually and audially. Towards the end of the film there is a seemingly never-ending parade of musical numbers and while I got very tired of seeing Amitabh Bachchan's special appearance(s as he keeps popping up!) even on the first watch, other songs are a rewatch-treat. The camerawork on "Ticket to Hollywood" is delightful and "Bol na halke halke" is just all-around gorgeous.

The jodi of Preity-Abhishek fills me with glee. Not only are they stupendously pretty together in this film (Preity especially), their chemistry is just adorable and I think their real life friendship (check out the episode of Koffee with Karan season 1 with the two of them for proof!) really helped with that. It makes me so sad Preity is not given that much movie opportunities nowadays. Bollywood producers need to wake up and stop signing those damned Katrinas and Priyankas. Preity's dimpled smile acts better than some of these newcomers.

And then there's Abhishek, whose dorky antics as Rikki Thukral should've made everybody and anybody go, "Kya kehre ho?" (Whatchyasayin?) and "I got class!" for three weeks minimum after watching this movie. I always tend to forget how much I love Abhishek and then I see a movie with him, or rewatch an old movie with him and re-realize that love again. His comic timing and facial expressiveness is excellent here, and even though I guess he's doing all kinds of cinema nowadays, I hope we see him in another comedy sometime soon.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom is a somewhat calculated movie that failed to interest people at the box office. There is no determining the tastes of audiences at large, I suppose, but for me and plenty of others, JBJ is just a fun Bollywood extravaganza. It's a little mocking, a little self-referential, but not to the extent of Om Shanti Om and its plot bears a few twists, but nothing incredibly complex.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In which I reveal, the Kunal Kohli "facts".

I'm not going to talk about Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic in this post. Suffice to say I liked it a lot, but a proper review will have to wait until the eventual DVD rewatch. Instead, I'm going to talk about the film's maker, Kunal Kohli.

Kunal Kohli is certainly not the best Indian film maker, not even the best making films in Hindi. But he probably is my favourite contemporary one in the field of honest-to-god commercial cinema - the one guy whose films I always look forward to. Maybe it's just the fact I feel like I understand him. Let me explain.

1. Kunal Kohli is a filmi fanboy. There are people who want to make movies because they want to make money, and people who want to make movies because they want to tell stories. I think Kunal Kohli might claim to be one of the latter but in fact he is probably of the third kind: the people who make films because want to make them. He is openly enthusiastic and passionate about cinema, and admires people who belong to a different type of film making than he himself does - I believe his biggest favourite is the legendary Guru Dutt. Now, he is probably never going to be as good or as legendary as Guru Dutt, but the admiration there is endearing to me.

I doubt he will ever stop making the kind of films he makes and yet at the same time, when his idols are of this sort, perhaps he will one day leave his sandbox and attempt something different, something more social, something more tragic in a less apparently filmi manner. I would cheer for him to do this, and hope that he wouldn't fail as miserably as Karan Johar did when attempting it.

The little tributes all of his films have to the golden oldies, especially their music (medley of Mujhse Dosti Karoge, Antakshari in Fanaa just to name a few) is very telling. What really made me realize how much of a filmi fanboy Kunal Kohli is, was listening to his Director's Commentary on the Fanaa DVD. He talks a lot about the poetic lyrics Prasoon Joshi wrote for the film, and is also in awe of Aamir Khan. If you own the DVD but have not rewatched with the commentary, please do.

2. Kunal Kohli loves his filmi moments. You know the sindoor scene in MSK? Or the scene on the second half of Fanaa where Kajol calls out "Rehan"? (I'm trying very hard to be vague as to not spoil the people who haven't seen these films yet!) The last rain scene in Hum Tum?

There are so many moments in Hindi films where something completely improbable but absolutely perfect in terms of audience satisfaction happens magically, and Kunal Kohli is the current master of them. At times he takes them dangerously close to the point of cheesy, and sometimes beyond it, and while some sections of the audience will roll their eyes and wish they'd rewatched something more intellectually stimulating, some people, the people Kunal Kohli caters to (read: me, me, me and some of my Bollywood-loving friends!) will gasp and squeal and if they're feeling dorky enough, go "Yes!" and pump their fist in the air. And sometimes those scenes alone are worth the movie ticket, or the DVD rental, that's how KK builds them up to be.

3. Kunal Kohli makes flawed films. As much as I like the guy, this has to be said: there is room for improvement in all of his films. I believe with MDK he is very good at admitting his error - the film's story and style was somewhat outdated, something that would've worked well in 1998 but not five years later. Hum Tum, I'm a huge fan but could easily lose the cartoon sections and some of the other artificial battle-of-genders type of thing. Fanaa has some absolutely cringeworthy scenes which I really wish would've been cut or reshot because overall I adore the movie. Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic was a fun Disney-ish children's film, but could've been more intelligent on the whole (there is no need to patronize children) despite the genre.

Is he getting better at making films? Probably. But I think that there will always be points in his films where I think he goes in the wrong for me, and for others, even people who (like me) are pretty much his fans.

4. Kunal Kohli works the genre. If you tune into Fanaa expecting any sort of realistic portrayal of Kashmiri politics/terrorism, good luck trying to enjoy it. The film is a typical ridiculous melodramatic love story, as improbable and outrageous as the premise - "blind girl meets terrorist, epic tragic love ensues". But if you go in expecting that and some very strong performances by Aamir Khan and Kajol and you are a fan of the whole intense love story thing, you just might enjoy it a ton.

Similarly, I think Hum Tum is among the absolute best romantic comedies out there. It's funny, it's romantic, it has touching moments - what more do you need? And then there's Thoda Pyaar, clearly a kids' movie, chock-full of moments of juvenile mischief that is hoping to appeal to the young hearts and minds in the audience.

So, this is not to say KK is incredibly good at working the genre, but he does do it pretty effectively most of the time.

5. Kunal Kohli is NOT Karan Johar. Because let's be honest, the previous four facts could also apply to the other popular film maker of our time. And yet, one director's work I anticipate, the other one's I dread. How come?

KJo (he doesn't like being called that, which is all the more reason for me to use it - har har!) is also a filmi fanboy, adores his own type of filmi moments (with bonus glycerin-induced tears!), makes flawed films and works the genre (of family melodrama, I guess). And yet, no matter how they are both sincere in their love for cinema, there is something about KJo films that I dislike and something about Kunal Kohli films that I enjoy.

I've analyzed this and come to the conclusion that it all boils down to their own favourite films. Karan Johar's absolute favourite is Yash Chopra's Lamhe, a film whose romantic jodi creeped the hell out of me, despite good performances by Sridevi and Anil Kapoor. He tends to admire the sort of overly tear-filled formula of melodramatic masala, and the sort of chiffon-sari-in-Swiss-Alps that I also like, but it can get a little tiring. The romances in his films are nearly always somehow peculiar and thus a turn-off and of course, his undying love, uh, I meant friendship, just friendship for Shahrukh Khan is another thing I can't really relate to. Kunal Kohli's taste in films seems a lot closer to my own.

So there you have it. And I managed all this without a single Chuck Norris Facts-related joke. Go team me!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Kaadhal

You would think Shankar's name under the word "producer" would guarantee a social message alongside a story of one action hero against the system along with lavish over-the-top picturizations, the whole glorious masala works. But instead with Kaadhal, Shankar is merely helping along a film maker with his own style and plenty of talent: Balaji Shakthivel leaves his own mark.

The story of Kaadhal (one of the few Tamil words I know - means, of course, love) is that of an eloping young couple. How they met and fell in love is told in flashback along with the story of their elopement. The journey is not without setbacks, and just about everything in the movie is wonderfully in touch with reality. The leads are attractive, but not in a very film-esque manner and the problems we see them facing are not out of this world. There is only one song picturization that transcends reality and has the couple dancing in beautiful locations. Most of the film music in the movie is in the background - old Tamil film songs heard on the radio, played in street shop etc.

Bharath, who debuted alongside Siddharth in Shankar's Boys, is the hero of the movie and perfect fit. He was my second favourite 'Boy' in the aforementioned film, but I only really noticed his talent here. Sandhya, the female lead, was also impressive. I especially enjoyed the fact this is one movie where the heroine does the chasing - Bharath's character is mostly awkward at the attention this pretty, upper caste girl is showing him. She makes her way into his heart and comes off as somewhat naive but lovable all the same. There is one scene in particular which portrays the sexual desire between the young couple beautifully; innocent but steamy, and not the slightest bit sleazy.

For all the sweetness this film serves up during the first half, it is one of the movies which has affected me the most with the turns the story takes during the second half. Kaadhal is well worth the DVD price (Ayngaran has a good version of it, which I bought in London back in March) and I could even recommend it to newbies of Tamil cinema. Something that has to be said about Indian cinema is that for all the formulas it keeps reusing, it's amazing how wonderfully it still manages to squeeze out something refreshing and touching out of some of the most used stories. I guess all it takes is a capable director.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

SWSFDFASRICEBDJFT - or random youtube goodness.

The title above is not ridiculous keymash, but rather me trying to accurately describe the following list. The acronym is, as goes, "Songs with a single female dancer focus that are so rewatchable I could easily buy the DVD just for them". And even with that monster of a statement, I'm not sure it accurately portrays the list are some films on it are so good, you would not be buying the DVD just for one dance number and some dance numbers, on the other hand, are not amazing but simply very beloved personal favourites for whatever reason.

But hey, forget about the title and just enjoy these.

Aaja Naachle - from Aaja Naachle

I watched this film with low expectations and while it's certainly not fantastic cinema and has an annoying tendency to side-step conviniently any actual points the story could be saying about art, national identity, progress, or anything for that matter, it's an entertaining enough film. It's okay to be fluffy but the movie is fluffy and full of plotholes to the point of ..absolute pointlessness, and that's kind of sad. Regardless, there is Madhuri Dixit, who while not a favourite of mine, is still an awesome dancer and a gorgeous woman. I will eventually get the DVD for the songs, and some of the cutesy side-characters, and this title song number is just pure Bollywood fanservice: Madhuri, dancing in glorious, unrealistically stunning sets. Plus the song is fantastically catchy.

Sharafat chod di maine - from Sharafat

As I said in my write-up of the movie, it's not a very memorable film aside from Hema Malini's glorious dancing. In this number, the lyrics talk about "leaving behind decency" and the mood is full of angst, as can be witnessed on Dharmendra's pained expression. It tugs at my heart while being a great dance number. I just love it, and have rewatched all songs on the movie so many times.

Pyaar kiya to darna kya - from Mughal-e-Azam

The great thing about being a newbie is bumping into movies and watching them completely without an idea of their history. Mughal-e-Azam was one such film for me. My first oldie, among my first Bollywood DVD purchases, and all I knew was what it said on the cover - 'an eternal classic', apparently. To this day I've never rewatched this epic all the way through, but the song numbers I do keep returning to. Madhubala might never be best known as a great dancer, but certainly "Pyaar kiya to darna kya" will remain a classic number. The opulent sets, the defiant meaning of the lyrics, Madhubala's perfect expressions, the anger of Prithviraj Kapoor's face and the love on Dilip Kumar's. Sigh.

Jhooth naina bole - from Lekin

I know I'm a completely biased Hema Malini fangirl but this is the best dance number I think she's ever done. The Gulzar film is from early 90's, and her role is very limited, mostly composed of this dance number but what a performance it is. Everything about her movements, expressions and presence speaks of maturity and talent as a trained dancer. Sometimes I wish she'd gotten more opportunities to perform like this on-screen. I can watch this a million times and the only thing I get sick of is Lata Mangeshkar's voice. Hema-ji, though? Incredible.

Namak - from Omkara

As I've said before, this Vishal Bharadwaj film is pretty much all around excellent. For whatever reason, "Namak ishk ka" is my favourite picturization in the movie. Bipasha Basu is not an incredible dancer, but something about the earthy tones of the shots and the melodies of the song just make it so fun to rewatch. It's an item number, sure, but it has just the right kind of naughtiness - suggestive but not sleazily so.

Marainthirunthu paarkum - from Thillana Mohambal

A Bharatanatyam dance performed by one of the most legendary dancers to grace the Tamil film screens, Padmini, with another legend, Sivaji Ganesan hiding in the audience. I'm not an expert on BN so I wouldn't know exactly how good Padmini is at her art, but she certainly seems famous enough for it. This movie really introduced me to the classical music and dance traditions of Tamil Nadu, and for that, this number is really special. It might be a slightly filmified version of the classical dance style but nevertheless, it's lovely to watch.