Friday, July 27, 2012

Pinnilavu - dipping my toe into Malayalam waters..

There are moments when you realise how overwhelmingly vast this simple thing called "Indian film industry" is. I've seen around 50 Tamil films and consider myself a fan of them, but those 50 films are not enough to cover any sort of range where I'd recognise all the key players - in those relative terms, I'm still very much a newbie. Hindi films are a ground which I've mastered walking on by now; I know stars both past and present and even though I've got gaps in my knowledge, I'm relatively well-versed by now.

To jump into Malayalam films, which I mostly know through the Hindi remakes, was not scary, though. I considered it more a great opportunity, and I am eternally grateful that I know somebody in my own home town who can borrow me some of her DVD's. Sadly, this friend (let's call her Stimpy by her online pseudonym) was still going through a move and didn't yet have her DVD collection in order, so I ended up taking home a rather random selection of Malayalam films, rather than just films she would've recommended.

So it happened that my first 'commercial' Malayalam film was Pinnilavu (1983), a family drama starring Mammootty as the wayward son of Madhu. 

To see Mallu films' biggest star in his young, still fit-looking avatar, was quite interesting. However, I subsequently discovered that the Golden Age of Malayalam cinema only began in 1984 or so - clearly this film was not a classic, and it showed. The role Mammootty plays is rather simplistic. The son, Unni, enters medical school and starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, who use their money to get alcohol, lounge around reading dirty books and magazines, and playing cards. The father obviously disapproves of this, as does Unni's beloved, played by Poornima Jayaram. That's about the extent of the plot.

The problem I found with the film was precisely the simplicity of this central dilemma. The actions of Unni and the disapproval from his father are so downright understandable - they're not just your typical generational misunderstandings. Unni neglects his studies, rather than just having fun in the way that university students normally have fun amongst themselves, and behaves very disrespectfully in all accounts. The lack of greys here really does the story a disservice.

Mohanlal's role as the leader of this gang of young men living irresponsibly is smaller, and not too important; I suppose this was from his period of playing mostly negative characters. He gets to dance in a song sequence, with immoral drinking! Terrible!

There aren't too many songs in the film, but the first one is a legend in and of itself; it is the only song where Mammootty dances! And oh dear oh dear, what moves he possesses:

The elbow dance!

This is the gif you'll want to save, and savour. (You're welcome.)

This is perfection. 

(Note: I do not post these to mock the man. He's obviously a popular actor well worth his reputation. I can understand why he chose not to dance in later movies .. and obviously most of the blame lies with the choreographer. Sometimes all dance, no matter how lacking in skill, can be enjoyable. So I absolutely cherish this number!)

Pinnilavu certainly ended up an underwhelming film experience, but of course, I'm going to keep watching Malayalam films. I want to see a decent amount - maybe something will catch my interest further than just this academic interest in discovering a regional industry, its tropes, styles and stories. I believe my taste is pretty similar to that of my friend's, so when I get to see some of her favourites, I'll probably know whether I am into Mallu films on the whole or whether Tamil remains my favourite Southie industry.

One thing I did notice was the relative smallness of this industry. It's clear that it's not big in terms of budgets or even story - Pinnilavu was a small story about family, no sweeping epic. The locations were also limited and seemed very ordinary, in a sense. 

And yes, while Mammootty and Mohanlal do conform to the stereotype of Southie heroes being older and pudgy, unlike the handsome, often physically fit Hindi heroes, I am over this prejudice. In the end, what matters is the acting, and whether they impress me with that. Hopefully, in the future, they or other Malayalam actors do!

I'm not sure why I uploaded this screencap of a shirtless Mammootty but I suppose it's as good as any a note to end on.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mr & Mrs '55 - should have come with a warning..

Apparently tons of people were perfectly aware that Mr & Mrs '55, the Guru Dutt-directed romantic comedy that is neither very romantic nor all that comedic, had a plot more or less composed of aggravating anti-feminist/misogynist ideology drivel. Well, I sadly wasn't, so I actually bought the DVD and was fully anticipating a good time.

The plot should have been a warning sign, but I knew nothing of it, going in. Madhubala plays Anita, a rich girl who will inherit her father's riches after marriage. Her aunt, Sitadevi, is the film's unfortunate "Straw Feminist" (this link is to a great video that explains the term and the use of the stereotype in Hollywood films), who is partly responsible for the new divorce law, which makes divorcing easier. She hatches a plan to get Anita married to poor cartoonist Preetam (Guru Dutt), but he only agrees to this plan because he's met and fallen in love with Anita.

There's a way to be not all that feminist a film, but still not annoying. Where this story falls down is the fact that not only is Sitadevi a gross, exaggerated stereotype of a manhating feminist (and it is annoyingly underlined that she has "learned" feminism from her Western counterparts, because naturally there are no Indian feminists whatsoever!), she's also the sole villain. While in Hollywood, the "Straw Feminist" may be used to discredit feminism to say "everybody's already equal", in here her ridiculous, self-serving ideology is labelled feminist to prop up conservative ideology of women's natural place being in the home, doing chores and looking after children. Unlike most real life feminists, who advocate women having the choice to marry and work, or marry and work inside the home, or not marry at all, for that matter, Sitadevi naturally wants to dictate this choice herself.

I'll be honest: this film nearly ruined Guru Dutt for me.

The sad thing, this is not a terrible film. It would have been fine without the blatant ideology - they could have portrayed Sitadevi as a terrible woman (still not a feminist thing!) but that her feminism and her awful behaviour are not necessarily directly related. But because the film wants to push the idea that feminists are evil beasts who describe being a housewife as slavery and are against women making any choices that aren't "for the cause", it casts a real shadow over everything I enjoyed about the film - the Madhubala-Guru Dutt chemistry, the nicely frequent OP Nayar songs, the Johnny Walker comedy bits. There are numerous cute moments that could make up a good film, if I could ignore the ideological dialogues that pop up every now and then.

There was one particular terrible bit of dialogue, where Preetam's sister-in-law tells Anita, after she asks about the woman's husband and whether he beats her, "You sometimes get rocks in the rice, but you don't stop eating the rice." While I fully recognise that a lot may have been lost in the translation of this particular bit of dialogue, this bit was just downright offensive to me.

I should also point out, there are a great number of highly credible critiques of Western mainstream feminism from the Indian perspective - but this film and the ideas it presents are not some of them. There have been discussions of how the feminism of English women propped up colonialist and orientalist ideas that further subjugated Indian women, as well as how more modern white women "spoke for" women in poorer countries, rather than allowing them a voice of their own. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Chandra Talpade Mohanty are just some of the people presenting the critiques I'm talking about.) But that's my Gender Studies minor talking, so let's get back to the film..

Johnny Walker and this actress, Yasmeen, who bears a vague resemblance to Rani Mukherji were probably my favourite thing when it comes down to it. They also were in my favourite song from the film, "Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji".

If you're at all like me in this department, just skip this film. As you can see from the screencaps, my SKY label DVD was also terrible in terms of picture quality, so that's definitely, definitely not worth the purchase, either.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A solid list of solidly okay films: Paiyaa, Bodyguard.

Paiyaa (2010) is your standard Tamil action entertainer with a bit of a twist: the story begins with Shiva (Karthi ie Surya's brother) pretending to be a driver to the girl of his dreams (Tamanna). Pretty soon it turns out she's in in a spot of trouble, and he offers to drive her wherever she needs to go. During the road trip, they learn things about one another, fall in love, and she discovers that - surprise surprise! - he's also got some goons coming after her.

It's a fun little film, but it's nothing amazing. I like Tamanna, and didn't dislike Karthi (this film introduced me to him) and the songs were quite sweet, but after the recommendation by the DVD store clerk, I think I expected something a bit more than an okay film. Regardless, it's a fine effort and probably one I'd have liked more, had my expectations been more reasonable. I think the interesting premise made me want the film to be better than it was, or maybe it was just that this one didn't quite click with me the right way.

The expression "made more money than God" always struck me as peculiar, as surely God's not that big into human capitalist pursuits? Isn't the whole point of religion to rise above materialist desires? Regardless of these logical flaws it's safe to say that Bodyguard made more money than God (if God was to make money .. yeah, I'll just drop this here). I watched it last December and of course completely forgot to review it.

True to Salman's new renaissance as the Southie hero who just happens to be making films in Hindi, this one is actually a remake of a 2010 Malayalam film of the same name. The plot is fairly simple - Lovely B. Singh (Salman) gets hired as bodyguard to protect Divya (Kareena Kapoor). Divya is annoyed by Lovely constantly tailing her, so she starts calling him to distract him from his duties, and pretends to be a girl called Chhaya. Through this little riff, the two fall in love - the film is essentially a romantic comedy wrapped in an action film shell, because there's no way Salman can *not* release a can of whoopass on some bad guys in his films these days.

But what really makes the film worth watching are the last twenty-thirty minutes or so..

I think it's curious that Bodyguard became such an unbelievably huge hit in all accounts. It's a solid film, no doubt, but to me it's not really as good as other similar recent Salman films, like Dabangg or Wanted, both of which I loved, and have rewatched many times. Maybe it's more that the success of the aforementioned films (alongside stuff like Ready which I wasn't a fan of) lead to this super-heightened moment of absolute Salman paagalpan across India. Regardless, it's certainly good enough for one viewing occasion - if only to try and see what made it such an absolute phenomenon.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Run, and how semi-nostalgia bites.

The weirdest thing about watching a film from 2002 in 2012 is precisely that - when you're so used to thinking of early 2000s films as "current", "recent", even "modern", and then there's a very sudden realisation that no, actually a lot of these movies are getting rather old. Of course, old doesn't necessarily mean dated. In some instances, however, it does, at least in some aspects.

Run (2002) is a Tamil action romantic comedy about a guy (R. Madhavan at his absolute most adorable) who meets a girl (Meera Jasmine - ditto!), pursues her, and then gets into trouble for loving her. At the heart of this conflict is the girl's brother (Atul Kulkarni, who is awesome), who is a bit of a rowdy, and there is a cute b-plot where the boy doesn't like his brother-in-law. It was re-made in Hindi two years later starring Bhumika Chawla (remember her?) and Abhishek Bachchan.

Run is far from being a really good film, or even a good film. It's saved by the cuteness of its leads, and the strength of the Vidyasagar soundtrack, but that's about it - the story is unremarkable, the action is not the most engaging (whoever thought that Madhavan would make a convincing badass?) and overall it just has the feel of a very run-of-the-mill early 00's Tamil actioner.

Oh, and there's Vivek, playing Madhavan's friend in his own comedy b-plot, who is unsuccessful in locating his friend in the massive city of Chennai, but is very successful in getting himself into a world of trouble by behaving irresponsibly and carelessly.

The Vivek comedy in this was not incredibly but reminded me of why the guy is a favourite: his character is a terrible, selfish person, but his comeuppance for his bad behaviour is both hilarious and socially critical, as it points out the multiple ways in which people rip off, abuse and exploit other people. You feel bad for him, in some ways, but on the other hand, his misfortunes are caused by his own behaviour - if he just behaved like a decent human being, he might not land in so much trouble.

One aspect of the film is the relentless pursue of Meera Jasmine's character by Madhavan's character. Sadly this feature of the love story is not as dated as it should be - her no's (brought on by her knowledge of her brother's behaviour) go unheard by him, and eventually he is vindicated when she confesses she likes him, but would still rather they not see each other, because of her brother's anger. 

I do like some Indian films where stalking sadly gets vindication like here, but in Run, the love story is just kind of bland, and so it irked me that they included this. Of course, the story does also have the couple continuously running into each other, unintended, suggesting fate has its hand in their love, but the stalking does still feature.

So why did I still enjoy this film, despite its unremarkableness and some unlikable aspects of the story? It had its charm, particularly in the interactions between the leads, and the songs. The film goes out to have songs and picturizations that feel very much "of its time". We get not just on but two Swiss picturizations, which are so beautifully shot you suddenly remember why these song picturizations in a foreign country became a thing. Despite questionable fashion (those fake leather trousers, please never return to us!) the songs are just a delight - beautiful locations, fun dancing, very catchy, poppy tunes. 

For a good example, check out this song - and for a challenge, try not to hum the "duhh dooh duhh" tune afterwards.

What else? Well, Madhavan is really cute in this.

So cute!


Of course, not to be outdone by Meera Jasmine.

Precious! It's interesting that the only other film with these two that I've seen was Ayitha Ezhuthu (ie Tamil Yuva with the Best Cast Ever: Surya, Siddharth, Madhavan), where they play the characters Rani and Abhishek played in the Hindi version. If you know either film, you'll know those parts are a far cry from romantic fluff.

Other things I enjoyed...

Raghuvaran as Madhavan's brother-in-law. There is awkwardness between them, because the marriage took the sister Madhavan's character loved so much away from him. However, the two find common ground as the film goes along, and the subdued character Raghuvaran plays is just fantastic.

And Atul Kulkarni, who I'd gladly see more of, stole the scene whenever possible as the resident baddie. There's a certain subtle, razor-sharp edge to his acting that makes for really good villains, even if the writing doesn't give his character the complete badness that would make it a truly legendary villain.

And so there you go - a middle-of-the-road film that feels very much of its time, in both good and bad.

GRATEFUL NOTE: The DVD I have of this comes from Nina, who years and years ago sent me a bunch of DVD's she no longer had the need for. It's taking me a small forever to get through the films - I think I've still got at least three films to sit through, but I still appreciate her sending me movies, and will hold onto this DVD for whenever I feel like watching some young Madhavan in catchy songs. Thanks, Nina! (Assuming you're still following this blog!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Vicky Donor: one swimmer short of good..

It doesn't get much more simple than this: Vicky Donor is a drama-comedy about a guy named Vicky, who becomes a sperm donor. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know, and of course anybody can guess that there are complications, there are laughs, and there is, naturally, even a love story woven into the mix. 

I'll keep my review simple as well. Here's what I congratulate the film makers and cast for doing: creating a simple story about a topic not really explored by Hindi films before this, portraying it in a progressive manner while also dealing well with all the false assumptions and prejudices that people might have about sperm donations and artificial insemination. There's also a fun b-plot about the coming together of two cultures, Bengali and Punjabi, in form of the love story where Vicky (Ayushman Khurrana) falls for Bengali girl Ashima (Yami Gautam). 

The cast is mostly fresh-faced, plucked out from TV, and perform well. Yami Gautam especially makes me believe in the character's emotions even when the script doesn't quite convince me, and I can't get over Ayushman Khurrana's dimples. Annu Kapoor plays the doctor who convinces Vicky to become a donor, and he's funny, whilst being just a tad too silly.

What about the bad, then? Well, for all the good that the script contains, it's far from perfect. First off, the beginning is unnecessarily prolonged and stretches the limits of credulity a little - why is Vicky the guy the doctor wants as a donor, surely there are other good ones out there if enticed with some money? Second of all, I never felt like I truly liked the character of Vicky. He's a confusing combination of the workshy guy who thinks he's too good for work, yet seems to lead a lifestyle that isn't exactly free, and yet accepts the "job" of a sperm donor even though he's quite against the idea as being beneath him. There's nothing that really endears me to the character; he doesn't treat anybody particularly well and for all of the actor's cuteness, even the romance leaves me a little cold.

Then there's Ashima - my annoyances with her character only come about towards the end of the film, so I won't get into them as to not spoil anything. Let's just say the things they make her do and feel to create dramatic tension seem a little too contrived.

So there's the good and the bad. I'm glad I saw it, if only for the new stars it gives us - I certainly hope they continue to do good work in the business. However, I'm not sure my recommendation would be anything more than a lukewarm one and I'm not dying to rewatch this film.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A: a film.

Kannada director-actor Upendra's A is a disjointed film full of bold choices, creative execution and merging serious points with more masala elements. It's a story about a director, and an actress he makes a star out of, and it's a story about love - however, to call it a love story would give you a rather weird idea of love throughout most of the movie. A bit of the underbelly of the film industry is exposed, but it's not an exposé.

It's almost impossible to clearly define what A truly is; all I really know is, I can't really discuss it properly without spoiling it. It did confirm something for me: Upendra seems to be a film maker whose choices I do not agree with quite often, but I still appreciate what he's doing, if not how he's doing it. A lot of these niggles have to do with how he treats his female characters, but I'll explain my thinking further in the spoileriffic part of this write-up. 

So either rush to watch it, or stop reading this.

From here on there will be SPOILERS. Including the very end of the film.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Baava - sweet but modest.

When watching this film, I suddenly realised it's been a damned long time since the last time I saw one of my favourites, Siddharth, in a film. Admittedly, last year was my least active film-watching (or blogging!) year since I got into Indian films, so it hasn't been anything particular about his recent films (all of which I will probably get to eventually) that's made sure I've stayed away. Still, this begs the question - what's happening with Siddharth these days?

In all honesty, the usual - the actor is dipping a toe into production, working with new directors in Telugu and Tamil cinemas, and typically putting out films that are not necessarily awe-inspiring but solid work. I get the sense he's not actively going out of his way not to star in Hindi films, or away from "alternative" roles, and his future releases promise some variety, but so far it seems that while I was occupied elsewhere, he's mainly done romantic entertainers. I won't blame him, since two years in film time is a short time, and I think he is actively seeking to do things other than his bread'n'butter, ie these romantic roles. (Off-camera, he's still being delightfully opinionated on Twitter!)

Baava is a Telugu debut direction for Rambabu, and a thoroughly harmless romantic family film about Veerababu (Siddharth) who is essentially a prankster, causing his fellow villagers quite a bit of grief. He meets a girl named Varalakshmi (Pranitha), who has returned to the village after completing her studies and - no surprises here - falls in love with her. However, as ever, the union of two lovers is never complete until their families are also united, and Veerababu's and Varalakshmi's families have more history than others'...

As with most of Siddharth's films, it's hard not to compare this one to Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana, the grand jewel of his past career, because of the obvious similarities. In a sense, over here he also plays a character who starts out kind of ridiculously hyperactive and (to some) annoying to boot. Then the love story kicks in properly, and his character mellows out and becomes more relatable, but still has to prove himself to the female lead character's family. I think NVNN is a lot stronger in the hyper first half, but Baava comes to its own eventually as well.

If there is anything bad to say about the film, it's perhaps that it never quite rises above "adequate". Both leads are fine, songs are cute, story can be compelling at times but draggy during some moments. It's a serviceable, entertaining film, but doesn't offer much anything that's new.

Is that necessarily a bad thing, though? Not sure. It didn't blow me away, but it did move me at times (the back stories for certain characters were great!) and best of all, it didn't really have anything to annoy me, unless you count the forgettable gang of friends of Veerababu on the first half.

It's worth watching, and if you're a fan of Siddharth, perhaps even owning.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sociopaths and the girls who love them: Ishaqzaade.

"Curse of the second half," they said. "Punishing the heroine," they said.

And I, like a fool, asked, "How bad can it be?"

It turns out, so bad I cannot even discuss this film without getting into all the various spoilersome niggles I had with plot and characterization. For a short, spoiler-free version, here's my take: 

I was never bored during Ishaqzaade, to the credit of the film's production. However, what promised to be an action-packed Romeo & Juliet tale of two young lovers (fresh faces Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor), their families divided in political and religious rivalry, ended up being quite the dysfunctional mess. While there's some good - music, Parineeti Chopra's acting - there's just so much bad I'm not quite sure I'd recommend it. 

And now, onto the SPOILERS...

If there was any justice in the world, somewhere half-way through the film, Parineeti's Zoya would have had a switch flip in her head and she would've gone full-on Urmila-in-EHT, avenging the injustice that befell her in the most mind-bogglingly gruesome manner imaginable. I would've enjoyed that, especially as I loved Parineeti in this - she's so solid for a newbie, lively in her expressions, believable in her sorrow. I'd rate her as highly as Anushka Sharma, my other favourite among the young recently debuted actresses.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen, and instead the film decides to have various female characters (first Parma's mother, then the prostitute with the heart of gold Chand) tell her that her love is what will cure the incredibly sociopathic male lead Parma. How unhealthy is this message? I'm all for the cliché of a woman's love curing a criminal, but considering this is the very same guy who completely and utterly messed up Zoya's life, in the cruelest, most calculating and cold manner possible, I'm not so sure he's all there for the curing. After such unforgivable actions, how can she trust him, let alone anybody? The message is harmful, to say the least. That man who had no regard for your feelings, wishes or honour? That abusive jerk? Stay with him, because you're the one who might turn him from an animal into a human being.

So instead of him getting his due comeuppance, instead the film builds toward a situation where they're both so utterly screwed they kind of have to be with one another. Is this romantic? Not even in the most tragic sense do I feel it is. I'm known to enjoy some pretty troubled, dysfunctional couples - love doesn't always have to exist in a problem-free, cushioned environment. But this here is just beyond the pale. When Zoya is shown to forgive Parma, finally, and the two marry properly, I don't get the sense that everything will be okay for these crazy kids, because at least now they've got each other. No, instead I'm stuck on thinking how this is more or less her Stockholm Syndrome'd by the circumstances into this marriage with him. Love him or perish, you're screwed either way, might as well...

It would help if the character of Parma was fleshed out or shown to be a little more respectful of Zoya's feelings and opinions. Instead he comes off as the sort of brat he acted like when he was deceiving her, conning her into the fake marriage. Does he end up deserving her forgiveness? Not even an inch of it. Arjun Kapoor might be an okay actor, but his talents so far did not stretch to give the role the sort of innate humanity that the character really desperately needed. I ended up hating Parma, and mistrusting his every action, no matter how genuine. He was rotten, and even if consequences lead him to abandon his initial loyalties, it does not redeem him in my eyes.

The final disclaimer gives some sense of why things went they way they did, why the movie doesn't cheer for progress or display any, and things go back to the status quo, as if nothing ever really happened in the first place. On the other hand, I'm sure a lot of these real life stories of ishqazaade (love rebels according to the film's own translation) are ten-fold in romance than the movie paying tribute to their lives.

So why did the film makers make these bizarre choices to "jazz up" what could've been a really good tale of love against all odds? I'll never know, nor will I ever understand. In the end you're also left wondering the inhumanity of an ideology where "honour" turns your own children into mere possessions that you only care to destroy to salvage your own "respect". What a cruel world it can be...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Hire me, Bollywood: Kiss of the Spider Woman re-imagining

Argentinian author Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (illustrated here by the novel's stylish Finnish translation cover art) draws a lot out of a simple premise: the dialogue between two prisoners, one a staunch communist activist and the other an effeminate gay man, forms almost the entirety of the novel. Valentin, the former, listens to Molina, the latter, tell him stories from old movies - through these re-tellings they discuss each other, life, politics and love.

The novel was perhaps the first to be told almost entirely through dialogue (with some official documents and footnotes relishing the story on the side), and it was later adapted into a stage version, that was then made into an Academy Award-winning film.

And after I finished reading and mulling this story over, I just thought to myself, "This would make a fantastic Indian film."

Why do I think it's so ripe for an Indian film remake? If you've read the novel, you know it packs a punch precisely because there is so much there to get into. The stories of the films tell us something about the character who narrates them; Molina is an escapist at heart, stuck in a world that doesn't accept him, but as the novel also shows, stuck inside these gendered misconceptions of both himself and the world around him. This kind of escapism is what forms a large part of the tradition of Indian films - the other reality where the corrupt politicians get beaten up by brave populist heroes, where the beautiful girl and the handsome boy fight adversity and find love despite their families' disapproval, the classic melodramatic heroines singing poetic tunes about their woes.. 

These kinds of aspects would find an easy translation into the films of Hindi film yore. Then there are things about the character that would obviously be different. Molina's identification with femininity means he might be categorised as a hijra in the Indian context. Or the character might be more closeted in terms of who he really is, and who he wants to be. 

Valentin, on the other hand, is the revolutionary, whose movement relies on secrecy, but who suddenly finds it impossible not to share some of himself with Molina. The two men form a bond - and without spoiling, it's safe to say this bond is not easily defined, especially given their unusual circumstances. Valentin seems haunted by doubts about his cause, and his constant reading of political literature seems to be partly due wanting to educate himself, but also to make sure he remains committed to his cause. 

India's history has no shortness of revolutionary movements, and at least in some states, the Maoist Naxalite movement has been seen as gaining prominence (as well as being classified a terrorist organisation by official authorities). So again, this would not necessarily be a difficult thing to transplant into the Indian context. 

In the novel, they get through many films - six according to some counts, seven according to others. In the film and stage version, they only delve deeply into one. On the page, scenes can whizz by when narrated, but in film, telling a story takes longer. But the narration of the films are integral to the story, not just because they form such a big part of it, but also because they cut into the differences between these two characters - Molina's melodramatic tastes in film reflect popular cinema, whereas communist Valentin's dismissal of certain films, certain scenes in them, seems to suggest an elitism. A really good director could form a story, a film within a film, with this narration, that would dig deep into this particular contrast between the two characters. The political v the non-political, the progressive v the socially conservative, the popular v the high-brow.

As for casting, well, if you want to aim big,  then why not aim the biggest? Aamir Khan as the brooding, uncertain Valentin, plagued by his past regrets but committed to his cause. Shahrukh Khan as the equally uncertain but only as fragile as he allows himself to be Molina, the narrator of the films that stir such emotions inside them both, the eternal escapist, unhappy in this world but with little desire to change it. For both stars, these would be bold roles, and fascinating characters to play; and of course, I am fantasy-casting like it's going out of style, here.

If you've not read this novel yet, do so, as I highly recommend it. I cannot speak about the strength of the English translation, as I read the novel in Finnish, but I assume it'd be worth it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nationalism, culture & representation - thoughts on Finnish cinema.

You might be thinking, what with that lofty post header, what the hell do Finnish films have to do with Indian films, the main subject of this blog? Not a whole lot, but allow me to explain.

A lot of foreign fans sometimes feel discouraged when Indians rag on their own cinema. "It's just not as good as American films", "they just steal plots from better foreign films", "the acting is so over-the-top and melodramatic!" are just some of the criticisms you might hear voiced. Some of that attitude might be rooted in internalised racist or colonialist thinking - the idea that if it's Indian, it's naturally subpar to anything that comes from outside of India; a certain lack of self-confidence in one's own cultural products. I say some, because it's not always the explanation, and I think it would be harmful to label other people's tastes as being rooted in something that they don't themselves recognise at all.

Another explanation of this high level of criticism towards cultural products of one's own culture/country is simply the question of representation - when we identify with a culture we were born and raised in, we might feel defensive or close to whatever members of the same culture produce as representations. We look at them through a different lense - it's not, "is this a good film?", it's "is this a good representation of Finnish culture/Indian (Tamil/Telugu/Kannada/Muslim/Sikh/etc) culture?". We don't choose to do this, instead it plays in the back of our heads like an unwelcome guest commenting on what you're reading over your shoulder, and it raises the standards just that little extra. It means you pay closer attention to everything, and are more quick to think about questions of accuracy. Dialogue, costumes, milieu - these all become more highlighted somehow. We also watch the film as a film, but with those raised standards, the film has also become something much, much more. It's sometimes not even so much a question of cultural representation as just the fact you want something from your culture to be good enough so you can present it to others with pride; this nationalist notion that even though you had nothing to do with the making of the cultural product, it's connected to you in some sort of way, because of this shared culture.

You can never see something from somebody else's eyes, and I think that's partly why people who have these "unwelcome guests" are often surprised to hear somebody else is watching, too, and doesn't mind the melodramatic acting or the song numbers (in the case of Indian films) or doesn't recognise the perpetual angsty male loser that so often ends up being the hero, or the clichéd sex scene where all you see is a naked butt but serves no purpose whatsoever (in the case of Finnish films). (Can you sense my over-critical tone from this yet?) To an outsider, sometimes a good film is just a good film. An outsider is not necessarily looking for any kind of representation, positive or negative - they just want to be stimulated by the film-watching experience.

So this is where I understand and sympathise with Indian people who just cannot fathom why anybody would want to watch some of the cinema that their culture(s) produce, because they just don't see the films as that good. Of course, there are a lot of differences between my pooh-poohing of Finnish cinema and those desi critics of Indian cinema - for one, scale and outreach. Finnish cinema has some audience outside the country's boarders, but not a whole lot; even expats would rather eat rye bread and go to sauna than watch a Finnish film to reach back into their native culture. We're a small country in terms of population. We're isolated. And most of us do end up walking out of the theatre and telling our friend, "That was okay ..for a Finnish film."

What's my point, then? Well, first of all, to say to all those who feel this way about their own cultural products - I get it, and I also get that you can't always help it. Even if you try to shut off that more critical side of your brain, it might not be possible. You are going to be paying close attention, you will be more critical than necessary perhaps, and your lived experience will define how you see the flow of dialogue, or the familiar milieu portrayed, or certain types of people characterised. That's just what film-watching entails, and in large part that's what makes discussion of film so interesting - to see how your own views of the world influence your understanding or like of a particular story, trope or character.

So you can't always shut off your inner cultural critic, but you can try to give films more of a fair chance by trying to make sure doesn't talk throughout the film. After all, what are films but stories? And stories aren't always location/time specific - at times, they're just stories. So rate them as such.

(This semi-pensive post is the 300th post in this blog. Hurrah!)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Head-first into the world of Upendra: Super (hand symbol).

What does any film watcher want in this world but to see something they've never seen before? To be surprised or provoked by a film experience is one of the greatest joys of it all, and on top of that, the delicious aftermath of telling a friend, "I saw a film unlike any film you've seen before."

From the moment I found out about Upendra, the "Real Star" of the Kannada language film industry of the south, often titled Sandalwood, I understood this was a man who was doing something Different, with a capital D. Now, whether it was something Different that I would like, I hadn't any idea, but I was curious all the same. 

So when I was putting together a DVD order of 6 films from six different film industries of India, and came upon "Super" (the title, being a handsymbol as seen in the screencap above, could be understood in multiple ways, as explained by Wikipedia but "Super" stuck in the media and fan conscious), I knew I had to see it, even if the DVD had no subtitles whatsoever. 

I mean, it's a film whose title is a hand symbol. 

A hand symbol.

Wrap your head around that first, folks, before you get on this ride - because "Super" is not just a quirky Southie director with a big ego playing around with concepts in a way that lends itself to amusing screencaps (though it is plenty of that, too!), it's also a political satire and a political philosophy dissertation in the format of a film. It's a film-long metaphor for the betterment of Indian society. It's simply put - something very unique, indeed.

Even the beginning credits provide something of interest. "Dialogues" become "die locks", story becomes "sorry". Producer becomes "fraud user". 

Behind these twists on words, we get scenes from life in India - all the negative aspects, be it violence, crime, or poverty. And then we reach this ultimatum: 

The letters "pendra" follow the U, eventually, but for a moment, the audience is literally being pointed at. This is your India. Look at it.

After that, we are taken 20 years into the future, to 2030 (this film was put out in 2010), where a foreigner comes to Mysore and sees a rich India, with cultured Indians strolling around in exquisitive Indian clothing (all the saris are made of the finest silk), with technology decorating tall buildings and not a trash in sight. Curiously, the problem of poverty has not been erased - but instead of fellow Indians slumming it, you have white people as beggars and service workers.

Naturally the foreigner - white British man, I should add - wants to know what lead to this enormous rise of India's wealth and infrastructure, and an Indian scholarly man tells him the story of how this all came to be, in a movie-long flashback.

Our "heroin" as per the beginning credits, Nayantara, enters the scene with flowers in her hair, romancing a rowdy who seems scared to death of her. Without subtitles this sequence is almost impossible to decode, but somehow she ends up threatening some rowdies until our hero bursts into the scene:

...carrying roses, accompanied by motorcycled badasses and white girls in mini-skirts. Okay!

The man is of course played by Upendra, the director himself, and the character is called Subhas Chandra Gandhi (remind you of anyone? it should). For a man raised in England, we see the enormous passion he's got for his home country, India. We even get a scene where the healing powers of the Indian soil are demonstrated in a scene that reminds me of Shahruh Khan's pigeon-curing in DDLJ.

Hand on heart, he has faith that his country, India, is the greatest in the world..

Eventually we see him meet Nayantara's character Indira (which leads me to ask what the meeting with the roses was about? God, I would kill for subtitles..), who is a traditional Indian girl, coming to London to perform traditional music and dance. We see the two fall in love.

It's all rather adorable, and they even get married, where we get the film's first twist; Indira is not really the traditional girl she acted like, but a mini-skirt wearing, cigarette-smoking, wine-glass holding schemer, who only married Subhas because years ago, her sister Mandir (Tulip Joshi) attempted suicide after he turned down her love, and now Indira wants to revenge this injustice.

She breaks down his idealistic view of India; Indians are rotten, corrupt and dirty, and could never amount to much. He's devastated, but takes up on her challenge to see Indian society for what it is.

This leads him to fight for a former teacher, who's got some trouble with his pension, but the problems of society hit him in the face every step of the way. He's distraught, but wants to make a difference all the same, and stays in India to do so.

Based on this, it might not seem like there is a lot going on, but the crux of the political satire and the message of the film only comes into full bloom on the second half. I've read that the film addresses specific Karnataka political scandals, and as I understand it, the political ideas of the film boil down to the thesis of corruption only existing so long as it is allowed by the people; Upendra's satire cuts not only the corrupt politicians but the people who dismiss politics as corrupt and don't try to change the ways things work on a microlevel.

In true film tradition, this political tale and message is still inter-cut with songs. The romance itself is a little questionable to say the least; not only the way in which it comes about (the scheming Westernised woman?) but also the way this plot-point ends - as a metaphor for something bigger. I'll get into some big spoilers later on regarding this, but for now, that's all I'll say. (I should also warn anybody who is squeamish over portrayal of rape, even just attempted such, there are such scenes in the film.)

At the end of the day, what is there to be said for a film so rich with thinking, even if a lot of it is fairly jingoistic? Well, I have to say, for all my criticisms of some of Upendra's points, and some questions that I have about the film as I saw it without subtitles, I really appreciate what he's doing, and how interestingly he is doing it. Even if I disagree with some of his choices, they are bold ones, they do make one think and they are packaged in a glorious mass entertainer that is truly in a league of its own. I think a subtitled DVD would be in high demand; this is a story not just for Indians, but also NRIs and even us Westeners to mull over.

It is weird and exaggerated (just look at the hairstyle in the screencap above), but it is also wonderful, and it has those complexities that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a blockbuster film. I don't think I understand Upendra in all his glory just yet, but I am more than happy to find out and see more. I didn't always agree with this film, but I ended up loving it for what is was - and what is was attempting to do.


Since the film is written like a thesis, I'll respond to it like one - with questions, thoughts and challenges. My first thought upon seeing Upendra's vision of the future wasn't to be offended that he portrayed white people as beggars, but rather the idea that an utopian future would include poverty in such a visible manner. To me, the problem in any society isn't the skin colour of the poor, but the fact that people are so poor they become beggars in the first place. I think the key to happiness in wealthy nations is not that I'm rich and somebody else is a beggar, because seeing them causes me grief/guilt and a number of other negative emotions - but that I'm reasonably well-off and my fellow (wo)man is not on the streets, either. The gap between the rich and the poor is what creates envy, greed and mistrust between people. I think somebody needs to send Upendra a copy of this book called The Spirit Level - which states that inequality harms us all, the rich the poor and the middle-earners. 

As far as his central idea goes, I am more persuaded. What is the responsibility of the people who consider politicians corrupt but continue electing them? What is there to be said for political apathy, and how much better would societies be if people felt more of a collective responsibility over the society that is essentially theirs? The thesis that you scale back democracy so much that the Chief Minister is the Common Man - or the common man is the chief minister of his own society - is very thought-provoking. The idea is that the choices we make on an individual level can be both to the detriment of the collective level - the society - or to the betterment of it. You can be great if you choose to live great - this sort of thinking.

I'll have to admit, I'm still unsure how I feel about the rape attempt of Indira to wake up Mandira from her coma. Even though steeped in metaphor - Indira as India, Mandira as Indian people, comatose from their apathy as to how bad things truly are - it still makes me uncomfortable. Of course, lack of subtitles made sure I had no idea whether Indira was actually in on this plan or not - whether she knew the true backstory of how her sister got to the state she ended up in. If she didn't, what is essentially happening - putting the metaphor aside for a moment - is that her husband is attempting to rape her. The horribleness of this imagery does lend the metaphor the sort of impact it was probably meant to have, but there's also other things to unpack here. (Did it have to be Subhas himself doing the raping?)

Why do women get to only to be metaphorical stand-ins for a nation and its people? There is a problematic, unquestioned misogynist premise here that is not uncommon in Indian films, but ought to be pointed out all the same; women are there to be "invaded" (raped) or protected. 

Patriarchy is not Upendra's fault, but I wish a director who obviously is thinking a lot about the film he is making, and has a tendency to present his messages in interesting ways, would question such decisions. Women who have agency are essential to any kind of social change that India needs as a country. (See several Satyamev Jayate episodes for succinct explanations of why this is.)

Another thing where I wish I had subtitles was so I could dig into the portrayal of Gandhism in the film. It seems like Upendra is saying, Gandhi's thesis of "turning the other cheek", being passive but strong against an enemy has made the Indian people docile in the face of adversity and problems. They are "turning the other cheek" towards corrupt politicians, when they should be making a difference actively, every day, in their lives. 

In the end, the biggest questions the movie brought up in me are questions of humanity - why do we do bad things, selfish things? Is it just our nature, or our carelessness about the welfare of others? And then the really tough questions - how can we change for the better, and whether we can change to leave a lasting impact?

But I do love the ending, and the punch it packs with such simplicity - who changed this all? You did. In the end, it's not a story of a hero, because no one person can change as much as needs to be. 

As for Upendra, I am extremely interested in watching his past works, both as a director and an actor. He's obviously doing something interesting, something unique and something different, and I think I can overlook the misogynist elements in his films (as I've heard there are some, and which was my biggest problem here) for the benefit of whatever else he is trying to say. He's also quite good-looking which is always a bonus. 

I also have to thank Amogh on Twitter for answering my questions about the film, helping me grasp some of the complexities of the message Upendra was putting forth.