Sunday, January 20, 2013

Upendra, starring Upendra, directed by Upendra.

I went into Kannada director-star (titled "Real Star" in the Kannada film industry) Upendra's self-titled film (now there's a turn of phrase one rarely sees in cinema!) very cautiously. My relationship with the film maker has been one part awe, one part admiration or appreciation but also one part condemnation for the, shall we say, problematic elements in his films. 

In Super (symbol), I appreciated the wild imagination that brought the film its energy, but loathed the way that women were used rather predictably as nothing but mere symbols of the bigger picture. I also had a more minor problem with the message presented. In A, the "women problem" was even more prominent, though once again the film had enough interesting ideas that I didn't hate it - in fact, I'll probably end up rewatching it at some point. 

There is so much thought behind these films, I would never want to dismiss them despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by the way Upendra treats his heroines. Like I said in my review of Super, it annoys me because I would hope that somebody who puts so much thought into crafting his stories would really think through his choices when it comes to portrayal of women. Upendra is not the only brilliant man who hasn't considered the opposite gender much at all, and he won't be the last, but I maintain my wish that it wasn't so. I wouldn't be so hesitant in recommending his films if women weren't thrown around indiscriminately to deliver point whatsoever, really. To be fair, Upendra's heroes rough-house men as well, but it doesn't make it any more palatable. These are loud, eccentric films - but there's a way to do it without so much casual, pointless violence, and I think Upendra could consider that option.

However, and this is a fairly major 'however', I feel as if with Upendra (the film), I have reconciled my relationship with Upendra (the film maker). I feel like three films in, I finally understand him a bit more, and while those problems I have remain, I can look past them and appreciate his films on the level he intended. It was as if Upendra (the film) was a journey into the mind of Upendra (the film maker) and while I think out of his films, in terms of the story, I appreciate A the most, in terms of the message, I really came out liking Upendra (the film ..yes, I am aware of how confusing this continues to be!).

Upendra is a tale of Naanu (Upendra), an absolutely wretched, selfish human being. He doesn't believe in lying, so he exposes other people's hypocritical lives while  breaking every rule society has given him to break. Despite this, a young woman named Rathi (Damini) falls in love with him. However, she soon finds out Naanu has two other women in his life - he is pursuing the rich heiress Keerthi (Raveena Tandon) and has a wife (Prema) as well. Who will be choose to be with, and will any of the women have him?

The eccentric loudness makes the film actually quite difficult to watch, and the real experience actually only begins on the second watch. The first time, you feel as if you don't know where anything is headed - Naanu is your typical loud, violent, punch-dialogue-delivering Upendra hero, but the way he points out hypocrisies in society just isn't really all that logical. It's also really not that interesting. The juggling he does between the women in his life also starts to feel a bit dull after a while - he loves Rathi but wants Keerthi, but has obligations to his wife. 

Damini is possibly the weakest link in the cast - Prema and Raveena do well with their exaggerated characters, and Upendra of course doesn't need to do much to do what he knows to do in his films. It's a drag on the first watch, when one is still under the illusion that all these threads of story are actually headed somewhere fairly typical. Even once you find out the real purpose of the film, there is just so much slack.

I read somewhere that some press in India were upset over the vulgar portions of the film - there is pretty frank discussion of the hero spending time with prostitutes and other sexual topics. I didn't mind  these parts because they were there, but even in retrospect it is difficult to see their purpose.

And that's the real downfall of this movie - the purpose is so evident on the second time you watch it when it comes to some things, but not when it comes to others. I get the sense that Upendra (the film maker) often doesn't care what the audience that doesn't already love him, thinks of him, but there is much to be said for a slight toning down of the loudness to perhaps allow all of those who haven't previously enjoyed his films another look in. 

I think sometimes it's fine for a movie to be so much in your face with its everything - from the songs (lyrics penned by Upendra, unsurprisingly perhaps) to the acting, to the dialogue and even to the initial shreds of social message you may read into the film, and I wouldn't ask Upendra to completely abandon his style. Still, I think there's something to be said for taking it down a notch - less is more, that kind of thing. 

However, with all these criticisms, I really appreciated the final message of the film. I wish you could somehow remove the frillings and just focus on the point of the film. As it concerns the very end of the film, I'll have to slap a big SPOILER warning here right now. If you haven't seen the film, by all means, check it out if you think you'd like it. If you have seen the film, continue reading!

When the film finally ends, we're treated to this screen:

My initial viewing experience was so unenthusiastic I almost wasn't going to do as the film specifically asked - watch it again, now understanding the significance of the main character being the symbol for "ego" and the three heroines the different aspects that battle for the attention of the ego. However, I decided that since I was going to screencap the film, I might as well give it a second viewing.

I'm very glad I did so. 

If you consider how horrible a person Naanu is, you begin to understand how the film is a story of the destructiveness of ego. He is, essentially, a person driven by ego - he's self-righteous, he's selfish, he only cares for people in the way that they can serve him. I'm not sure if Upendra really meant for me to loathe Naanu throughout the film, however - if he did, he certainly did it right. There's a strange disconnect between having a hero who gets a lot of "hero" moments of success, but who at the same time is not a good person, even with his glimpses of good behaviour. 

The initial meeting with Prema was really interesting to me, and in many ways their relationship turned out to be the highlight of the film. It seems as if responsibilities really ground the ego - and in a way this is the only thing that redeems the character of Naanu if you put aside the symbolism in the film for a couple of moments. He seems to do right by his wife, for the most part. 

However, if you place the symbolism into full focus, as one is supposed to, it becomes clear that Naanu's pre-occupation with his needs, his desires, is eventually what drive these different portions of his life to ultimately try to kill him. Just like the women in his life, he cannot have them all while maintaining his ego as strongly as he has throughout the movie. 

Hence, we get the message of the film - let go of your ego for even just a little, and you'll be happier for it.

This is where perhaps once again the consideration of women could've come in handy for Upendra, because to me the film ends on a somewhat flat note. He tears his self-fashioned shirt as a symbol of letting go that 10-20% of his "self" (ie the ego) but at the end, he is left wandering around a vista on the screen, and the women have disappeared.

But what is life, if you're no longer so obsessed with yourself? Life is striving for success, life is enjoying oneself, life is fulfilling duties. Rather than just releasing that egotism that to a certain extent plagues us all, isn't the purpose of life to serve these three aspects in a balanced manner? You should work hard, you should enjoy yourself, while fulfilling your duties to your family or society.

It seems almost as if Upendra didn't think to go that extra step - by the end, Naanu the self should be serving the three women who represent these three aspects. By letting go of his ego, and focusing on them instead, he can fulfill a purpose for himself.

Of course, there can be many interpretations to these things, and perhaps that's why I remain of two minds about Upendra the film maker, as well as Upendra the film. I don't feel as if these films escape my understanding in any way - I understand his point, his reasoning and his explanations. But I can almost never fully agree with it, and so the film experience is always thought-provoking, yet somehow hollow because as much as I appreciate everything, I don't quite agree with it. 

I've still got two films of Upendra's acting oeuvre to look forward to, and I will definitely keep an eye out for any English-subtitled DVD releases of his directorial films. However, as a rule, I think I might prefer Upendra the actor - he can be quite effective as an actor, when he chooses to do so, and while I don't think my Indian film knowledge would be the same without knowing his vision and his film, I have to be honest - I'm not sure I can call myself a fan. 


aham said...

Thanks for such a detailed review, and as far as I am concerned I prefer Upendra the director to Upendra the actor, having said that here goes my two cents about the movie and the review, I think there are a few things I want to clear, Naanu in Kannada means I or Me, so Upendra's character Naanu means the character itself represents the ego of all as per Upendra's perception, there are good things about a person's ego and there are bad things and for cinmeatic reasons Uppi has chosen to focus on the bad to very bad aspects of the ego, so one way of viewing the movie is by looking at the characters as not real people but the ego and the three important aspects of a ego represented by 3 heroines, in such a version you cant relate anything to any physical human, for instance the strange costumes that Naanu wears are the one that very few in the real physical world would want to wear but since its the ego that is a character it can do anything, its like what people want to do but cant because of societal limitations, Naanu does it because ego/mind has no restriction, sky is the limit, if you look back at the movie(you always have to do that with Uppi directed movies), and see every scenes with not a physical person called Naanu but Naanu as in ego of a person played by Upendra You will find the movie deeper that it appears, and thats why Uppi marketed this movie rightly as a 2D movie, the 2nd dimension being watching it as a regular movie assuming there is a crazy character who calls himself as Naanu and does these awful things, and yes Upendra does intend for the audience to loathe Naanu, and as I have said before very few actors dare to portray such a negative character today in Indian cinema, but Uppi simply doesnt care.

The another aspect of the movie is treatment of women, and I kind of agree with you that maybe he could have taken it a notch down, and also made some things more subtle, but we are afraid we cant change that, but if you observe he has taken the violence against women way down in Super, although there are some things which you might not agree in Super but still the violence has come considerably down, and I hope with his next movie i.e., Upendra 2 which is supposed to start this year he will change completely, since he is married for almost 10yrs with two wonderful kids, his view of lot of things has changed since then.

But one thing you have to agree even if you dont consider yourself a fan is that there is absolutely no film maker who has dared to make films like Om,A, Upendra not then not today, who has risked his career to make films that are so drastically different the way a story is told and yet succeeded, even I feel today more than 12 yrs after watching Upendra the movie for the first time that Uppi could have portrayed some of the aspects differently but he didnt but at least we found a film maker who is crazy enough to make the movies he did which are unimaginable to any Indian film maker.

P.S: I know we still disagree on a number of issues but quite frankly I am glad you saw this movie, and I am grateful to you for writing such an in-depth review,thanks a lot.

veracious said...

"Naanu in Kannada means I or Me, so Upendra's character Naanu means the character itself represents the ego of all as per Upendra's perception"

Yep, even though I failed to mention it, I knew that Naanu meant "me" in Kannada - the jokes earlier on in the film suggest that much.

You're right that as a representation of an exaggerated negative ego, Naanu is a very interesting character. I think it's always a bit disorientating at first to encounter such a negative character in a film that has the outer appearance of your typical masala movie. That's one of the things I definitely like about Upendra - he takes you assumptions and completely turns them around on you. I can understand why some people love it, and others (many critics as well) hate it, because it's so outside the box.

Aham, thanks to you in return for always replying to my reviews in such a thoughtful manner. Upendra is definitely a bold, brave film maker and his movies wouldn't be half as interesting if I didn't have the opportunity to chew them over with other people afterwards. They really do stay with you, as well. I remember watching A in the summer, leaving the house right after I finished watching, and then just thinking about the film throughout the day and the next day. He makes really provocative, thought-provoking films, and even though I find some of them more successful than others, I definitely always enjoy going through them, figuring their message and what Uppi is trying to say with his films. His films always deserve lengthy, thoughtful reviews, so I hope I've always written such reviews for them, as opposed to simply dismissing them as so many professional reviews seem to have! Like him or hate him, I think everybody has to admit he's unique.

I really hope more of his films would get English-subtitled DVD releases. His films are both thoughtful and eccentric, so I think they would appeal to many in the international audience, or even just Indian fans who don't know Kannada. I also really hope I can see Upendra 2 when it comes out - should be a very interesting film.

aham said...

Actually Upendra 2 is the title given by fans, since uppi had hinted it earlier, the real name of the movie is not known instead uppi has released this as the poster

the name is the box, and like all his movies he is extremely tight lipped about the project since it is currently in scripting stage, but from what I have gathered reading all the interviews and following him on twitter Uppi has hinted that it is a very complicated concept a psychological thriller possibly about if a person can live without thinking, about thoughtlessness as i would call it, the idea itself makes it very unique, so I am really waiting for it. Needless to say the expectations of his millions of fans are sky high already.

veracious said...

Interesting poster and a very Upendra-like concept! Good stuff.

Shipz said...

u should watch Upendra's Ssshh movie..a low budget awesome horror flick..if u r interested in other Kannada movies then best movies u can watch r Nagabharana's Anveshane,Banker Margayya,Nagathihalli chandrashekar directed hoomale,america america,kotreshi kanasu nd Udbhava and ter s another awesome filmmaker called Sunil Kumar Desai who came from same Kashinath's film school same as Upendra..Desai's films r superior than Upendra's films according to his classic Beladingala bale,then ter s Tarka,Utkarsha,Marma..he s the master of suspense thrillers..try out some Shankar Nag directed movies especially Accident..m expecting more reviews here..

veracious said...

Hey Shipz, good to hear some recommendations. I'm unsure when I'll order some more Kannada films to watch, it might be a while, but I'll keep the titles you mentioned in mind.

However, it might be a while - not all movies are available on DVD with subtitles, and anyway, I don't have all the money in the world to buy that many films, sadly. So definitely keep visiting, but don't be too disappointed if it takes me a long while to review another Kannada film!

aham said...

Forgot to clear a few more things, I told you the movie is deeper than it looks when you see Naanu as a kid he tells that he cant lie and he doesnt understand how it is that people can just say something thats not, well it represents the ego/mind as a child, as a child ego doesnt have much baggage and there is innocence in a child that is portrayed on screen, 2nd point is the 3 heroines not only represent the 3 important aspect of a the ego but also they represent the 3 seasons Summer,Winter and Monsoon so if you observe carefully when each heroine comes there is either rain/wind/sunlight depending on who it is and in the climax scenes all 3 are shown together when Nannau is walking away from the screen, and if you observe the shirt with Uppi's face in the climax it has 3 shades of the 3 seasons too.
and lastly you said that Naanu shifting between 3 women didnt make much sense well it does, sometimes a man feels he needs love and nothing else is important sometimes money is paramount and sometimes nothing matters except family so what Uppi has tried to show is that the mind/ego is fighting with itself to decide what it wants, so mind being fickle always keeps changing.

I think if you understood Kannada you might have got the intricacies better, believe me more than a decade after watching Upendra when I think about the movie I still find many things that I didnt get from previous viewing, yes Upendra is a very male centric film, but it is also a work of pure genius, and as Rajanikanth right put it after watching Super that there is no thinker film maker like Upendra in the whole of India.

veracious said...

Thanks for further notes!

lastly you said that Naanu shifting between 3 women didnt make much sense well it does, sometimes a man feels he needs love and nothing else is important sometimes money is paramount and sometimes nothing matters except family

I meant that if you're watching the film for the first time and haven't yet learned about the symbolism of the film, you only see Naanu wanting a girl to be his lover, but also have a wife, and then desire to marry a third woman for her money. If the film was just that, it'd be pretty dull. Symbolically it makes sense, but of course, on your first watch you might not know how the film works symbolically.

Rajnikanth is right. A lot of Indian film makers are very imaginative (Shankar, SS Rajamouli) but Upendra sort of combines the loud mainstream cinema with the sort of heavy symbolism and metaphors usually mostly used in art cinema. He brings them to the masses, and whether you dislike that or love it, you have to respect that he does that.

aham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aham said...

And if possible lend the DVD to friends who might be interested to watch this and A, it would be really interesting to see what others think about it. they might shed a different perspective on things other miss.

veracious said...

That's true. On the other hand, I tend to notice my friends preferring the more fluffy, comedic Indian films to the outrageous or dark films, which Uppi's films typically are. I'll consider it, but make no promises, my friends don't like to watch Indian films all that often.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Veracious, for the perfect review.

I would like to share my thoughts and about the film:

Upendra is a 2D (2 Dimensional film) - you can see it in either of the two dimesions.

In one dimension, you can view it as a physical story - involving human beings. That is, this crazy guy who calls himself as Naanu (ME), these heroines daamini, Raveena and Prema - are all human beings. In this dimension, the ending is completely logicless.

The actual dimension is the second one, in which Naanu (ME), and the three heroines are not humans at all - they are 'Emotions'. In Upendra, it is the story of the 'EGO' of any ordinary human being and his 3 emotions - represented by Upendra and the three heroines.

This fellow NAANU is not just one living person, this character NAANU is a metaphorical representation or symbolism of every human being's EGO. The madness of our EGO is shown by the weird and mad things this guy keeps doing. For example he wears all kinds of wierd and strange clothes, which means that our Selfishness or Ego is completely insane, if left free. This thought of 'ME' or 'I' will be present in every person in this world. This feeling of 'ME' is the protagonist (or say antagonist) of this story NAANU. Every Human being has some responsibilities in his life - like looking after his family, earnings, etc. Every person has thoughts such as My Wife, My children, My Parents, etc. This emotion of My Responsibilities or "My Family" is the character played by Prema, Naanu's wife. Everybody needs some enjoyement, refreshment, rest, leisure in their lives apart from responsibilities. For Example we go out for movies, restaurants, hang out with friends, etc, when we need break from our responsibilities. This emotion of "MY Enjoyements" or "MY Leisure" is represented by Daamini, Naanu's Lover. In order to look after these two emotions - "MY FAMILY" and "MY ENJOYEMENTS" we need another important thing, Money. This plays a major role in everyone's life. Without money, we can't look after our family, nor our enjoyements. Hence we are always behind money. Similarly, NAANU is always behing Keerthi played by Raveena Tandon, who represents the thought of "MY MONEY" or "MY WEALTH".

In life, we desire all these three - Family or responsibilities, Enjoyement or leisure, Wealth or power. We can't live without any of these 3. In the film too, Naanu desperately needs all three heroines. He can't live without any of them.

When NAANU desides to Kill himself, i.e. by tearing off that shirt which has his own photo, he Kills that emotion of "ME" or "I". When this "ME" itself is dead, then how can "MY" live ??? therefore when he kills his emotions or thoughts called Me and MY, immeadtiately these "MY FAMILY", "MY ENJOYEMENTS", & "MY WEALTH" also die. Which is why, the 3 heroines Vanish, as they no longer serve any purpose because the master of the 3 emotions - "ME" itself is dead, then how can the 3 MY's live ????

This is the explaination for the disappearing of the three heroines. Finally when he walks off after killing ME and the three MY's, it means that he is walking in the path of a Sanyasi (a person who has sacrificed all worldly desires and walks in the path of God) like Buddha - with no more desires in life. No more Family, no more enjoyements or pleasure, no more wealth and no more lust. This is the reason why the Japanese found this film interesting, and screened it in Ubari International Film Festival, as it resembles the life of Buddha who gave up all worldly pleasures in the end.

Curious to see what Uppi wants to show in Upendra 2. Will it mark the return of "NAANU" or "ME" ?? Lets wait and watch. :-)

@Veracious looking forward to your reviews on 2 more Upendra films which u mentioned u have bought, may i know which are they ?

veracious said...

Hey anon, thanks for your thoughts!

I own six Upendra films on DVD, these I have seen: Super, A, Upendra, Anathaaru

And two I have not seen: Preethse, H20.

Anonymous said...

"There is so much thought behind these films, I would never want to dismiss them despite the fact that I am deeply disturbed by the way Upendra treats his heroines"
-this is also how I feel. As a woman, I am uncomfortable with the way he potrays his heroines and the amount of open misogynism in some of them. However, over a period of more than a decade of seeing his movie posters, seeing them in bits and pieces in television channels (sometimes in Kannada itself..sometimes in Telugu dubbing), I started admiring his thought processes. Thanks for writing the review!

veracious said...

vbsowmya - It's unfortunate because to me he could be really great if he thought more about the way he portrays women. Hopefully that will change with time.