Monday, September 29, 2008

My Achilles' heel: Hema-Dharmendra

If you ask me whether I have seen some uber-popular all-time classic and I reply "no", you can only blame the obsessive nature of yours truly, as well as the causal effect that instead of seeking out these Mother India's, these Pakeezah's and and Guide's, I've been watching films with my favourite stars and especially my favourite star jodis, regardless of quality.

A lot of my early and so-far watching of oldies has been influenced by the fact the first oldie that I absolutely loved was Sholay and thanks to it, I just wanted more of Hema Malini, and more of Dharmendra, and quite simply, that's what I ended up watching. While the numbers are not huge (out of the 42 shared projects IMDb lists with the two, I've seen a mere 11 so far), it's quite a lot considering the overall number of oldies I've seen is not grand. So seeing as how I love this jodi so much, I thought I'd review three of their films in one go.

The above two stills are from Jugnu, one of the most delightful Hema-Dharmendra ventures alongside such classics as Sholay and Seeta aur Geeta. It was one of the first true-and-blue 70's masala films I saw, complete with double identities and car chases, and thus taught me the meaning and value of this crazy genre I later grew to love. There were a number of fantastic traits in the film; Dharmendra plays Jugnu, a mysterious man of virtuous deeds and a master of disguises, and in those disguises he gets to do a couple of very funny comedy scenes. Hema plays a girl who falls in love with his real life identity, Ashok, but her run-ins with Jugnu are less favourable, though all the more hilarious. Added to this, we have awesome villains and beautiful songs. After seeing a few mediocre Hema-Dharmendra films (yes, such exist), this was a true breath of fresh air, and I truly should rewatch it and buy it on DVD soon.

One of those sadly mediocre flicks was 1980 Alibaba aur 40 Chor, the Soviet-Indian co-production (not that there is much Soviet to be seen - on the outside it pretty much looks like your typical Hindi film from this time period), which is a re-telling of the classic Arabic tale. Certain things are changed in this version compared to the one I first heard as a child, but the core elements (Alibaba, cave, 'open sesame!') stay more or less the same. I watched this also pretty early on in my oldie-expeditioning, and maybe because of that it was kind of a letdown. The plot moved slowly and there was a lot frankly quite boring action. On the plus side, the film included Zeenat Aman who I adored as the strong girl avenging her father's death. Dharmendra-Hema sparkled as usual and the songs were all visually spectacular. Especially memorable is the female duet where Hema and Zeenat protect themselves by pretending to battle over men's attention - "Saare shaher mein". And of course, must not forget Zeenat's song in the treasure cave, with the psychedelic disco floor - "Khatooba khatooba". I don't own this one on DVD either, but just for the songs, I frankly could!

Maa contained some offensively bad fashion, tons of mother love, tons of animal abuse and at the end of the day .. an elephant.

That's right. An elephant.

Without the elephant I would've not hesitated calling Maa one of the worst oldies I've witnessed. Boring, eye-roll inducing melodrama and overflowing mother love almost made me turn off the movie despite it having two of my big favourites. Thankfully I stuck through Dharmendra battling wild animals as the hands-on hunter, whose mother dislikes his profession because he separates animal children from their mothers. Three guesses what happens and how his mission on the second half of the movie shapes up to be re-uniting a baby elephant with its mother. Now sure, that sounds cute, and admittedly was cute, but this was unfortunately only for the second half. You know that "no animals were harmed" disclaimer you get in front of movies? This one didn't have it. And I really, really wish it had, considering what kind of stuff happens in the movie.

But to quote one song from Alibaba, "jaadugar jaadu kar" - the magician does magic! - and somehow it remains that even though they've done some unimpressive films together, I'll still gladly keep exploring the vast catalogue of Hema-Dharmendra films out there. I don't have any on the horizon right now but I hope to watch at least Pratiggya, Kinara (providing I ever find this on DVD!), Naya Zamana and Aas Paas.

Recommendations are welcome! My Dharmendra-Hema list so far is:
Alibaba aur 40 Chor
Dream Girl
Patthar aur Payal
Seeta aur Geeta
The Burning Train

Friday, September 26, 2008

The unavoidable Khan.

Isn't there enough talk in the world about this man right here, Shahrukh Khan? When even a Finnish paper has a small bit about his stardom and Berlin visit (and a mention that his latest, Om Shanti Om is screening at Helsinki International Film Festival), it's a sign that either everything that can be said about the man has already been said, or that you can simply discuss him all eternity.

I'd prefer if it was the former, but then I think back the last seven days of my life, and it has to be said: I've had plenty of Shahrukh this week.

A week ago I saw Chak De India (also at HIFF!), one of those Shahrukh films I'd been avoiding because it hadn't really interested me (simple as that!). However, I was glad to discover this was not really a Shahrukh Khan movie as much as it was a film where Shahrukh Khan plays a lead character. Some of you might be raising your eye-brows, but those of you who've seen plenty of King Khan know exactly what I mean.

I really enjoyed Chak De India, because as stated previously, it's these girls who get to play center stage. It's a sports movie, but definitely among the best, most moving ones I've seen, full stop. Girl power at the core, Shahrukh's character Kabir Khan also has his own plotline, but just as important, if not more so, are the individual storylines of the female hockey team's players and in typical sports film fashion, the team spirit that allows you to overcome any obstacle.

Another refreshing change in the film was the lack of "negative nationalism", or in other words, extremely caricature-like negative portrayal of non-Indian characters. The foreigners are only enemies on the hockey field, and there were no racist or xenophobic insults exchanged.

The following day I watched Om Shanti Om for the third time, and I must say I find the movie less enjoyable, less encaging and more overrated with each viewing. I love me some inside jokes, and some scenes are undoubtedly as hilarious as ever (Abhishek and Akshay steal the show at Filmfare, and the build up to Dard-e-Disco picturization is great) but overall the movie just fails to keep me interested. Shahrukh's parodic hamming it up is no longer sympathetic and everything is just so distanced, I can't really believe in the characters or the story. As my friend put it, "great collection of scenes". But the best movies should be more than the sum of their parts, right?

I guess I just got a Shahrukh-overdose. And yet, today when deciding what to start my relaxing weekend with, I went with my favourite movie of his: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

It's difficult to explain why I have such a special relationship with this movie in particular. I guess the most important thing is that it is built exactly like that; a personal relationship. I didn't fall in love with DDLJ because millions of Indians had, or because everybody who liked Bollywood had. At the get go it was simply a film I saw with two stars I wanted to see in more films, Kajol and Shahrukh Khan. I hadn't heard any of the hype. It captivated me even without subtitles, and once I saw it with subtitles, I was even more smitten. It had flaws, too, no doubt, and even today I am very hesitant about calling it 'the best' of anything. At the same time, it holds a certain magic for me not many other movies do.

And Shahrukh as Raj is the kind of charming perfection even the man himself hasn't been able to duplicate in anything since (of course, this being merely my own view). As I was rewatching, I realized it's a combination of a lot of small things; the way he calls her "Senorita" even though the story about the Spanish girlfriend sounds a little made up, the smug expression on his face each time he tells her "nothing can go wrong" and the embarrassment when something, of course, does go wrong. But also the big things: the care-free attitude and the promise that he'll be serious when he falls in love, a promise which he of course fulfills..

Whatever the director Aditya Chopra is working on with Shahrukh right now, I know not to expect it to bring out the kind of feelings I have for DDLJ. But I suppose so long as it works, I'll be happy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Starting out with ___? Newbie indoctrination philosophies.

The way it looks to some film fanatics of Indian cinema, the world only has two kinds of people; those who love Indian films, and those don't. The former type is more varied than the latter type believes - ranging from the Russian girl who grew up in USSR watching Raj Kapoor films to the NRI living in London whose mother is big on Dharmendra, from the Delhi housewife who catches most films on TV to the German university professor whose friend showed her a Shahrukh Khan film and who's been in love ever since. On the Bollywhat Forums people came up with the term NIF - Non-Indian Film (person), referring to a person who doesn't love Indian cinema and doesn't understand it. At the same time, there is a widespread belief that in every NIF there is a seedling, a potential to become a filmi fanatic as big as any.

It's probably a huge generalization to say that Indian people themselves rarely try to get non-Indians into their own country's films. Of course, there are undoubtedly exceptions to this rule, but in general the biggest fans of introducing the world of Hindi (and Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam) films to NIFs are former NIFs themselves - people who through some odd path in life stumbled upon Indian films and enjoyed them immensely. These fans are typically not Indian as most Indians, even NRIs, more or less already know Indian films (though I think it's fair to argue that a NIF could also be an Indian person who dislikes their own country's films and largely prefers foreign cinema).

Some people don't stress introducing Bollywood to strangers. They sit their friend down with one of their own favourite Hindi films and come what may, hope their friend likes it enough for another one (and another one, and another .. that's how an obsession starts, hai na?). Other fans worry about their friends' opinions so much they have a hard time choosing from their Bollywood library - a new film, an oldie, something glitzy and masala or something from the multiplex side of things? Hrithik or Shahrukh, Rani or Madhuri, Karan Johar or Ram Gopal Varma, historical or contemporary, annoyingly catchy Pritam soundtrack or classy A.R. Rahman? Even from a small DVD library one may find a confusing lot of choices. And the philosophies on what best suits a newbie, on exactly just what will make them go "ooh, I like this, I want to see more!", are many and varied. The following are just a few lines of thought I've seen people swear by in their Bollywood-pushing attempts.

1. Taking It Slow - The believers of this method want to soften the entry into the dramatically different cinematic world of Hindi films for their NIF friends. The idea is that instead of showing a three hour melodramatic masala feast, you break the viewer in with something a little closer to what they've seen before - something more in style with Hollywood or European cinemas. A film with a more serious topic, a songless film, or a film for the multiplexes (such as Dor for example) will show the NIF how Indian films aren't all that different but are a little different all the same, and if they like the film enough, it can be easy to show them more, something a little closer to the louder mainstream of Hindi films. Another example might be Rang De Basanti or Pyaar Ke Side Effects.

A show of variety right off the bat - Indian films can be anything from politically motivating to fantastically entertaining. A non-alienating film experience for your average NIF - they'll probably like the film and won't be judgmental Indian films anymore.

"Indian films are just like Hollywood films in a different language!" - or, not recognizing the uniqueness of this form of cinema. A non-encouraging watch - a NIF may possibly not be intrigued to see more, hearing that this was just one corner of the large field.

2. Throw Them to the Thick of It - The direct opposite of the former method. The idea is that a NIF is best caught off-guard; show them a three hour long film with all the whacky plot twists, melodrama, song-and-dance like you wouldn't believe. All the works, basically. This way they see Hindi films in all their glory, for better or worse - or as the believers in this method think, usually for the better. The idea generally isn't to make the NIF love everything about a film, but for some aspect or several of them to catch their interest. They like the dancing, or some actor, or some goofball aspect of the plot and want to see more. They're fish that caught the bait. Examples of this could be just about anything from Sholay to DDLJ, from Fanaa to Kal Ho Naa Ho.

Realistic view of what the indoctrinator usually loves about this cinema as they typically pick one of their favourite masala films. A lasting impression if nothing else!

Too much for some NIFs. May re-enforce stereotypes of Bollywood in the NIF's mind.

3. If You Like That, You'll Love This / Know Your Audience - These are technically the same method, though with some key differences. The first term is the correlation theory - the idea that if a NIF for example likes action films from Hollywood and Hong Kong, they might enjoy something like the Don remake in Bollywood. If they like romantic comedies, Jab We Met. Or something less specific, if your NIF is a fan of very visual cinema and historical storylines, anything from Jodha-Akbar to Asoka might be their thing. Strong heroines? Seeta aur Geeta. Cheese and eyecandy? Dhoom 2. Taste for the black-and-white? Shree 420 or some Guru Dutt classic.

KYA (pun unintended) or Know Your Audience method on the other hand also relates to knowing what your NIF expects or wants out of Indian films. Are they looking for laughs, a good cry or a thought-provoking story? Do they just want to get to know the music and dance styles in the films, or do they already have a star in mind they'd love to see in a film ("I like that guy who's in your laptop desktop pic!")? With this sort of knowledge you're guaranteeing they will enjoy the film, or at least heighten the chances of that happening.

A familiar but new experience for the NIF at the same time. A chance to show them a different way to make a film from a genre they thought they knew through and through. Generally better success rate.

Knowing your friend's movie taste may prove more difficult than you think. To say they like comedy, you may have to probe and think back to what styles of comedy they have enjoyed in the past. People's tastes can be illogical, too: in Hollywood somebody might dislike musicals but in Bollywood adore them.

4. Starting Modestly - This view was expressed by a friend last night, who told me I should not show one of my absolute favourites, the films I think of as nearly-perfect to a NIF. "Better start with something that's just okay, so they get the hang of it but don't think of every movie will be great," she said, adding, "Your taste is different from theirs, fundamentally, because you've seen more movies."

Come to think of it, a lot of people got into Bollywood through films that aren't all that. My first, K3G, is not among my favourites, though I have a certain fondness towards it. Not everybody's first film wow'ed them but they still liked it enough to continue watching. For example, Dil Chahta Hai I saw much later, and it's among my favourites. I was a newbie when watching it the first time, but had seen around 13 Bollywood films by this point. There's a huge difference in that first film and those first films that solidify (is that a word? it is now!) the love for this particular cinema.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - "It was okay, sure, but I don't want to see more.." so in other words, a completely non-thrilling film experience, leaving no desire to explore Hindi films further.

5. Running Commentary vs Whenever, Wherever - These opposing views relate to the actual situation where the NIF sits down to watch whichever film has been decided for them by the existing filmi buff. The former option is for them to watch it in the company of the more knowledged Bollywood fan, who may share trivia, answer questions, comment on the movie and offer explanation to the (possibly) confused NIF. The latter option is to borrow your DVD's to a NIF, perhaps even several one's, and allow them to check them out on their own in whatever circumstances they choose to. Running Commentary is preferred because for one, you can watch the film again, and see your NIF's reactions in actuality and also make some things clear for them so they get more insight into this sort of cinema. The former allows the NIF to decide for themselves how they want their first dose of Bollywood, which may lessen their worry of "will my Bolly-fan friend hate me if I don't like this movie?" and increase the likelihood of them enjoying the film.

Con's for Running Commentary - Not for everybody, as some people simply want to watch films alone for the first time, and find conversation during a film, no matter how sparse, very distracting.

Con's for Whenever, Wherever - The NIF may start watching a film too late in the evening and fall asleep not realizing the movie is longer than two hours, or they may watch it while doing something else and miss half of it. A NIF may misunderstand something thanks to faulty subtitling, not being accustomed to subtitling or something similar. All of these add up to a not-so-great film experience.

6. Watch What You Want - Occasionally it might not be possible to lend a film to a NIF or watch it with them, thanks to distance or other circumstances. Some people also want to throw the ball in the NIF's court. The method is simple: the NIF browses some Bollywood films, perhaps based on the Bollywood-pusher's recommendations, and picks whatever really catches their eye (buys it or rents it from Netflix or downloads it from the internet or similar). This way it's not up to us, the existing fans, to fret whether they will end up liking it or not. It's also a question of motivation: they might not be so motivated to watch a film that a friend just dumps on their lap, but a film that they themselves picked, they will be more interested in watching.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - The NIF's pick may go terribly, terribly wrong. They may end up watching one of those mind-numbingly bad films because "the girl on the cover was pretty" or "the plot sounded interesting". Even recommendations may go wrong; they might see a friend mention a film in a positive manner and assume this film is great and worth seeing. For example, I loved Ek Duuje Ke Liye recently but it's not the film I would sit all of my NIF friends down to watch.

7. Snack-sized Viewing - Bollywood fans should be known for picking a film apart. You know what I mean. The music was good, but the dancing wasn't, the male lead did a great job but the villain was lacking, first half okay, second half spectacular etc. The films are jam-packed and usually in that package, there is content of largely varying quality. This method requires putting together a visual mixtape of Bollywood's best bits - songs, scenes, music videos, comedy scenes. Youtube is a great tool if you don't have the technology to rip scenes from DVD's and burn them onto a new DVD. Of course one way is also just to watch songs from one film, some scenes from another film, going picking and mixing like this. Song DVD's can also be utilized in this.

Seeing songs off one film may increase interest in watching that film whole. Seeing an actor/actress in one of the clips may pique a NIF's interest. Also the opportunity to show variety; a song from the 50's, one from the 60's, some contemporary ones and an action scene from the 70's to spice up the mix may give a NIF an amazing view into the vastness of Hindi cinema, better than any one movie.

Overload of visuals and variety may not appeal to a viewer not from the MTV generation - they might prefer a whole film, and to see the whole story. Another problem may be that the NIF starts to see Indian cinema as just a selection of funny Youtube clips - "I can watch the songs and laugh but a whole movie? No way!".

7. Aware and Prepared - The simple view that in the end, it doesn't matter whether you pick masala or artsy, mainstream or multiplex, modern or oldie, what really matters is how you prep your NIF. Explanation of the film's genre, plot, stars, music before watching helps guide the NIF's own experience of the film - when they know what to expect, they won't be left disappointed.

Pro's - as argued above.

Con's - Too much information may kill a film. Often Bollywood films take a turn to something completely different half-way through the film, and a simple description may make the NIF expect something that they only get in some scenes in the film. Masala is both a blessing and a curse at times.

Who says Bollywood fans are shallow? As far as the philosophies of newbie introduction films, our views are complex and more in-depth than those of any regular Hollywood film viewer's. This is just the thoughts I've come across with and discussed with people. Feel free to add to the list, or perhaps argue why you prefer Running Commentary or Snack-sized Viewing above anything else.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Superficial charms; hottest men and women of Indian films.

Inspired by an entry posted by Nicki, and by some thoughts that occurred to me during my umpteenth rewatch of Hum Tum last night, here are some stunningly good-looking people that grace our screens. Your mileage may vary, this is just a list according to my tastes.

Saif Ali Khan, here as not-a-good-man in Ek Hasina Thi, the film he looks best in and acts his best in, at least until we got Omkara.

Abhishek Bachchan, doing the guh-worthy eye-brow thing in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Mon amour, Ricki Thukral.

Vikram making clothes most reminiscient of tinfoil look good in Arul.

Vinod Khanna being his magnificient self in Sachaa Jhutha.

Surya looking smouldering alongside Laila in Nandhaa.
Random, slightly odd but stunning handsome pic of Akshay Kumar all the same.

R. Madhavan, dreamy as ever, in Guru.

And now onto the ladies..

Hema Malini then.

Hema Malini now.

North-Indian girl in South-Indian movies; Jyothika.

Not the best of actresses (not even close), but I can't resist her smile. Katrina Kaif from Singh is Kinng here.

The wonderful Kajol.

Always a darling, Juhi Chawla in Hum Hai Rahi Pyaar Ke.

Regal Zeenat Aman in Dharam-Veer.

Smile of the century: Rani Mukherjee in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic.

Doll-esque pose of Preity Zinta in a recent magazine.

Classic beauty: Madhubala in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.

Was that more gals than guys? I guess it just goes to show - Indian women are gorgeous! Indian men, well, only nearly as..

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I want to learn Tamil in 30 days or; Ek Duuje Ke Liye.

I admit to prejudice; the more classic 80's films I watch, the less I think the decade as a barren wasteland of cinema. I mean certainly it was the time when the formula of the 70's was falling apart; the violence got gorier, the angry young men got meaner and the cheese went stale and turned moldy. But nevertheless, it had it's moments, as witnessed in Maine Pyar Kiya, a cute late 80's romance and in K. Balachander's Ek Duuje Ke Liye, from 1981.

Of course, the film is a remake of the same director's Telugu film Maro Charithra (1978), also starring Kamal Hassan. I guess whenever the North runs out of ideas, it's easy to turn to the South, and I'm sure the Southie stars were happy to debut in Bollywood with such a fun little film.

EDKL tells a story of inter-lingual love. Goan girl Sapna (Rati Agnihotri) whose family speaks Hindi, lives next door to a Brahmin Tamil family. Her mother often gets into arguments with the father of the Tamil family, over various neighborly issues. One afternoon Sapna runs into Vasu (Kamal Hassan), the other family's son, and despite the fact he doesn't understand Hindi, they fall in love. The families, as you can imagine, aren't happy with this but Vasu arranges a deal - if they can stay apart for one year and still remain devoted to their love, their parents will agree to their marriage.

Instead of focusing too much on the hate between the families like many, many movies that came after Ek Duuje Ke Liye, the film keeps it light and romantic. The connection between Vasu and Sapna is youthful, they play silly games, and especially the scenes where they teach each other one another's languages are memorable. The chemistry between Rati Agnihotri and Kamal Hassan is dead-on and they are, to put it simply, adorable. Love blossoms between them despite the differences in language and they find many nonverbal ways to communicate and express that love.

Then of course there are the actual language studies they partake in, as referred to in the title of the film. Tamil in 30 days sounds a little unattainable, but oddly enough I do have a tiny booklet called "Learn Tamil in a Month". I've owned the book for months and haven't learned Tamil yet, so there goes that promise.

I'm really happy about this being only my second Kamal Hassan film. The other one was a Telugu film called Sagara Sangamam, where he plays a classical Bharatanatyam dancer, and it was also from the early 80's/late 70's. It's great to see him, not at an already established point in his career, but the classic early films he was in that made him the legend he is today. His Vasu is simply adorable, fun and carefree but not without depth - perfect romantic lead, in other words. I also realized while watching exactly how much others have learned from his acting; for example, his antics as a romantic hero can be seen reflected in Aamir Khan's romantic roles. I'm not sure if Aamir has ever cited Kamal as an influence, but the similarities were there for me at least.

The soundtrack is lovely, especially as picturizations; my biggest favourite of them is this one, where Vasu and Sapna sing a song composed entirely of Hindi film titles of the past, titled "Mera jeevan saathi". Brilliance!

But the movie is not without flaws, the execution of the ending included. Don't get me wrong, as an ending I liked it; but the way the happenings were carried out, let's just say, could've been done so much better.

Regardless, get your hands on this! It's a classic you won't want to miss out on.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hamara pyaara adhyapak. Teachers in the 1970's Hindi films.

With the school season upon those of us lucky enough to receive education, I'm sure you're all thinking what I'm thinking - why is young Vinod Khanna not one of my teachers?

But sadly my life is not the 1974 film Imtihan where Vinod plays Pramod Sharma aka The Coolest Teacher Ever who single-handedly spews life-inspiring aphorisms to help the traumatized Madhu (Tanuja), attracts the richest girl in the school (Bindu) and rids the education system of its ills, like cheating and corruption. I've actually only seen half of the film; accidentally spoiled the second half for myself, and suddenly don't feel like watching anymore. Regardless, Vinod in geeky glasses being all-around amazing is fun enough.

Large glasses seem to be a trademark of filmi teachers - as witnessed here on Dharmendra in the 1976 film Dillagi, where he plays a Sanskrit teacher at a women's college, who has run-ins with an uptight Chemistry teacher (Hema Malini). Of course, beautiful ancient poetry wins over even the most hardened scientist, and the film ends up a fun, light romantic comedy, as sweet as anything.

Here we see Hemaji also sporting the trademark Teacher Glasses.

And of course, how could one ever forget Chupke Chupke and Amitabh Bachchan's fumbling Sukumar Sinha, who has to pose as his friend Parimal (Dharmendra), a Botany professor instead of revealing his true identity (and that he's in actually an English professor and doesn't know anything about Botany) to the enthusiastic student played by Jaya Bhaduri. Again, we see the comically thick glasses, but this time they're a part of Sukumar's disguise.

My knowledge is limited, but one more teacher comes to mind - Dharmendra's character in Sharafat is a teacher, worried about his students visiting a courtesan (Hema Malini). This teacher, as far as I can recall, did not have the Teacher Glasses on, but he was all the more righteous and handsome:

So there you have it; the teachers of 1970's Hindi films! It wasn't the most popular hero/heroine profession, but there are a fair lot of examples all the same. Next time you're bored in class,
distract yourself by imagining what it would be like if Amitabh Bachchan (in his 70's form) would be teaching you about the wonders of Shakespeare..

* The title, unless I once again messed up my Hindi, should translate "our lovely teacher".