Monday, March 30, 2009

Writer's block mini-reviews, part 1.

So, I have this blog. And I've seen ..according to my current count, 183 Indian films (give or take, I have some films I'm half-way through, and some films might be missing from the list I have). How many of them have I actually discussed here? A miniscule portion. Let me try to correct that. I inserted my alphabetical list of films seen onto's randomizer and out came a new, randomized list. Here are the first 10 items on that list.

1. Duplicate (1998) - A list of Shahrukh Khan films I absolutely adore is not too long. Even shorter is the list of his movies that I adore in which he is full-on, one hundred percent unsaturated Shahrukh Khan, not toned down as you see him in Chak De India, for example. Duplicate is one of those movies. It's a loud, physical comedy film starring Shahrukh in a double role. The leather-wearing badboy Mannu is out on the run and discovers a foolish mama's boy Bablu bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Hijinks, mistaken identities, romance (Sonali Kulkarni as Mannu's foxy but mistreated girlfriend and Juhi Chawla as Bablu's adorable ladyboss) and hillarity ensue. This one has an uber-catchy, cheesy 90's soundtrack, too. It's just so much fun!

2. Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam (1962) - My first Guru Dutt movie and one of my favourites. On my first watch I remember being completely confused on the social reality portrayed in the movie, I think I still am. Essentially Guru Dutt plays a man who comes to work for a royalty of some kind, meets a lovely girl (Waheeda Rehman) and also gets to know the royalty's lonely, tragic wife (Meena Kumari). It's a classic, and it's a lot less sad than a lot of other Dutt movies so I can definitely recommend it. Oddly enough I've read that by the time this was filmed, Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt were not on good terms with each other at all - yet I think their chemistry is great in this!

3. Kaakha Kaakha: The Police (2003) - This is a well-made Tamil action thriller about, you guessed it, cops. Surya plays a policeman whose group are "encounter specialists". This basically means if they run into some gangsters, they can shoot at free will, and boy, do they ever. I thought this was well-made but the actual plot didn't interest me much. It's worth a rental for the smooth soundtrack and the spectacular Jothika-Surya pairing. She looks amazing in this.

4. Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) - The soundtrack contains one of my favourite Hindi songs ever, "Chura liya hai tumne jo dilko" and that's why I saw this one. It's a mediocre film about three brothers separated at childhood, starring Dharmendra and Zeenat Aman (not paired!) and has a very young Aamir Khan in one scene. And .. I don't know what else to say, really. It's not that bad. It's just not that good, either.

5. Aethiree/Ethiri (2004) - Oh Maddy. Oh, Maddy. This Tamil masala starts out pretty light and fun - R. Madhavan plays a regular guy who gets mistaken for a rowdie (that's Tamil-filmish for 'street gangster, troublemaker') and therefore starts pretending to act like one, even though he is a total wuss. There's a funny friend (Vivek!), a pretty girl (Sada) and it's generally pretty cool (I rather adore this song). Then something happens and the plot just veers off into massive WTF zone and all the cuteness of the movie is successfully ruined. I'm glad I could borrow this DVD off a friend - and look at that cover, can you see why I wanted to see it despite my friend's warnings? - because a few good songs, and some minor Maddy&Sada cuteness DVD purchase does not make.

6. Aarzoo (1999) - I've already discussed this but let us recap: awful Sakshay movie with Madhuri, don't watch, don't watch, do not watch.

7. 36 China Town (2006) - I still own this Abbas-Mustan comedy/thriller despite Race making me question everything those guys have ever directed. It's not a great movie, but when it came out, after nothing good had come out since Rang De Basanti and Fanaa was still a month away, it was a pleasant surprise. Kareena was funny in it, Akshaye was funny in it, and okay okay, it also gave us Upen Patel but no film's perfect, right?

8. Karan Arjun (1995) - Before Sakshay came along, my favourite Bollywood on-screen pair was without a doubt Kajol-SRK. Which is why I saw this one, a damn cheesy film that is so far the only film where we've seen Shahrukh and Salman side by side. It's got insane mother-love, an even more insane villain, resurrection, cheesy 90's dance moves.. If you think Kajol and Shahrukh only did great movies together, you have to watch this one. I don't own it on DVD because while fun, it's not quite that much fun, but every now and then I feel like rewatching "Jaati hoon main" on youtube..

9. Aradhana (1969) - I have to say I enjoyed this classic Sharmila Tagore-Rajesh Khanna starrer, not least of all because it contains the (hot!) picturization for "Roop tera mastana", another song favourite of mine. But despite my enjoyment, there were things about the plot that did not quite sit right with me. The mother who goes through tremendous sacrifice, the double role of Rajesh Khanna.. I guess what I'm getting at is that even though I quite liked it, it's nowhere near becoming a favourite of mine.

10. Achanak (1973) - I cannot fathom why I never bought this movie. It's total Vinod Fangirl Fodder. He plays a soldier who makes questionable choices in life and later battles with them mentally (read: manpain), relaying the story of his life to his doctor and his nurse (Farida Jalal as a young actress!). It's a soundtrackless Gulzar movie that pokes your brain about life, death and morality, but it's also an odd one; very short, only a little over an hour in running time. And a lot of it is Vinod. It's just fantastic. More films should be like this.

This was a lot of fun to do! When my next "cannot figure out what to post" mood strikes, I shall make use of this randomized list once again.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fifty Bollywood films BBC thinks I ought to own.

Thanks to Beth for linking to this - it's a great excuse to detail some movies I've seen, and whether I appreciate them enough to make this list. Link: BBC Asian Network's 50 Bollywood movies

There's plenty of films I don't own and have not even watched but here are some random comments.
  1. Black? Devdas? I know I'm sometimes in the minority as a Bhansali nay-sayer but come on. Really now.
  2. Guru and Yuva are both quizzical choices. I'd like to have one or the other, for Abhishek's fantastic performances in both, but Guru just was not overall great and Yuva had plenty of boring, trite stuff, too. Bombay I agree with fully, though. It might be my favourite Mani Ratnam film - if nothing else, it is amazingly touching and moving, guaranteed to make you cry.
  3. Agree with Beth on this - Munnabhai MBBS ought to be Lage Raho Munnabhai. The first one is good, the second one is absolutely stellar and one of my favourite post-2000 movies.
  4. Naseeb - goddammit, I own this movie, it has Amitabh, it has Hema and it's a Manmohan Desai. Why haven't I seen this yet? I need to prioritize!
  5. Rangeela, wow, really? Does anybody remember anything but bad fashion from that movie? If I was forced to pick a cheesy, classic but not amazing Aamir Khan film from the 90's, I would go with Raja Hindustani. It's not a clever film, far from it, but it has tons of heart. Rangeela has none, unless you count shots of the area where Urmila's heart is, I guess.
  6. Some of my ultimate favourites on the list; Seeta aur Geeta, Sholay, Dil Chahta Hai, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Lagaan, Omkara, Rang De Basanti. I also really like Maine Pyar Kiya, Mughal-e-Azam, the previously mentioned Munnabhai, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Good on you for including this, list. Not all faith is lost.
  7. Sarkar? Yawn. Life in a Metro? What the hell! That one was mediocre at best! Page 3? I don't know, I'm not really into these 'exposé' type of films. Yes, media and the glitz and glam of celebrities hides a lot of dirt and ugly behavior. Big shocker.
  8. Films from this list I really want to see: Maachis, Taare Zameen Par (European DVD release, please? anybody?), Pinjar and of course, Naseeb.
Two posts within 24 hours, would you believe it? Go me!

PS. Should each of us Bollywood bloggers create our own "must own" 50 film list? I'm thinking while it might be a favourites list for most, and of course, excludes those who haven't really even seen 50 movies (my numbers are only at 200 at this point..) but it's a good way to evaluate whether you think you've seen a great variety in movies or if your viewing has been more focused towards your biggest favourites or whatever. 25 must owns might be more doable? I'll sleep on this, maybe work on my list tomorrow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and escaping the reality.

First of all apologies for the lengthy silence. It's one of those points in time for me when it's difficult to work up excitement over all things Indian cinema related. Everything exciting is coming out close to the end of this year, and I'm never in the mood for anything in my large pile of DVD's-to-watch. I haven't seen a single 2009 movie yet. It's odd.

But let's talk about what I have seen, specifically that little movie that won the Best Picture Oscar.

Slumdog Millionaire is a quizzical - pun unintended - piece of cinema. It weaves together the realism of violence and misfortune of the streets, gangsters, religious zealots and orphaned child beggars, with the dreamy escapism of Bollywood films, love conquering all obstacles and the idea of fate, 'kismet'. You could argue that because of this, it portrays Mumbai or Bombay perfectly, the two sides of the city both brought on display. At the same time, for this particular viewer at least, it created a strange discord - I didn't know how to allow the movie the benefits of both styles, how to reconcile the illogical parts with the ones that made more realistic sense.

You must all know the story by now. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, who I previously loved in the UK television series Skins) is a kid raised in the slums and out on the road, who ends up on the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, hosted by Prem (Anil Kapoor), and against all odds, knows the answers - simply because he does. Accused of cheating, he is forced to relay his life story to a police man (Irrfan Khan), a tale of misfortune but also of success, and of his search for his childhood love, Latika (Freida Pinto).

It feels a bit silly to critisize the movie for things I felt were unrealistic, in a way that quite bothered me, because for one, I did truly enjoy the movie. It was powerful and had a lot of great elements coming together effortlessly. Then, for two, who am I to say what is and isn't realistic? Despite my long interest in India and my knowledge of it, I'm oh so far from all-knowing on the subject. And yet -- would slum kids truly learn such fluent English while being out on the streets (or on the rails, as it were)? Would they ever, later in life, converse fully in English? These are small complaints but they threw me off all the same. It's odd how I could easily suspend my belief on the existence of fate, but not these smaller things.

The film is nicely paced, and especially the scenes with the children actors - first very young and later slightly older - were fantastic. As Jamal matures, Dev Patel carries the role splendidly, but the adult Latika, played by Freida Pinto, is sadly not as convincing. This made me lose interest in their love story just the tiniest. If Freida did have the chops to pull off the role, it felt like she was not giving her fullest and was more of a pretty face than anything else. The other actors, such as Anil and Irrfan, are as solid as one could expect - the layers in Anil's Prem were a pleasant surprise for me. The sound design and music overall deserved the Oscars they received, punctuating scenes fantastically. The song-and-dance, which is surely not a spoiler at this point, is not up to Bollywood standards (the choreography is partly fine, partly reminds me of cheesy 90's Hindi films) but if nothing else, allows the film to end on a high note and was not as bad as I initially expected.

I think it's wonderful that Slumdog has gotten the success and publicity it has and that India, too, has embraced the film as if its own. I'm glad to have seen it and enjoyed it - even though it doesn't quite make any of my favourites lists.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tough luck. Salaam-e-Ishq and the wonder of rewatches.

Sometimes it's time to just face the facts. That movie you pretty much loved when you first saw it, as a celebration of what Bollywood is all about, back when it first came out, the movie you kept in the back of your head for a future DVD purchase, that movie you've been meaning to re-watch for ages ... that movie, it turns out, might not be as good as you thought.

What's even sadder is that you ( - me - all of us at one point I suppose) have always recognized its flaws. As any film, it certainly had some. But now, rewatching, you find yourself wishing it was at least half as exciting as the first time. This is the review of my initial thoughts, by the way. It's from 2007, obviously. But god, that date seems like ages ago.

As most of you probably know, Salaam-e-Ishq is Nikhil Advani's first movie on his own, without the ever-watchful eye of Karan Johar leaving its mark on the movie. It features, what, six different couples and their storylines as they deal with love; difficulties with it, rediscovery of it, or just fulfilling it. As you might assume, it's a little too ambitious a concept to pull off and keep it interesting - the storylines do cross over, but remain mostly separate, and as some of them are not as good as the others, the viewer does begin wishing they got back to those good storylines and just leave the rest be. The film runs long, even longer in its original theatrical version, and you can really feel it at times. The first time I saw it, I felt it would've made a better mini-series than a movie; too bad India hasn't familiarized itself with the format of a television mini-drama yet.

For me on this particular rewatch, only three storylines seemed worthwhile. The above screencap is the least entertaining of the three but fun enough all the same; Akshaye Khanna plays the playboy-like, commitment-phobic Shiven whose patient fiancee Gia (Ayesha Takia) finally ditches him so he may rediscover the meaning of love and whatnot. While this is one of the few Akshaye Khanna films I quite like (or don't actively dislike), the character being such an asshole does really get to me. He has quite literally no reason to act that way, and his progress of learning how to appreciate Gia is not very satisfying for me - especially because they cut one (slightly comedic) scene where he explains to a hallucination Gia why he's so afraid of commitment (my memories of this are fuzzy but that's how I recall it). That scene seems to have made all the difference for me.

I'm much less ambivalent about my adoration for this storyline; Kkamini (Priyanka Chopra), an item girl striving to be a fully-fledged heroine comes up with a plan to pretend to have a secret boyfriend, Rahul, until a mystery man (Salman Khan) actually enters her life - in front of all cameras - and claims to be said Rahul. I love everything about this storyline. It's self-referential (Salman addresses the audience, pointing at the camera), it's funny (this is possibly the best I've seen of Priyanka's comedienne skills), it's sweet (the slow falling in love, the reveal of Rahul's actual identity..) and most importantly, both actors absolutely excel in their roles. I'm still not huge on Priyanka but this is without a doubt my favourite performance of hers, just spot-on as the diva-like wannabe-starlet. And Salman is in his element, subtly funny and romantic and just a great presence against Priyanka's manic Kkamini.

Akshaye approves!

The third storyline, and who could've been stars of their own movie in my opinion, was that of Raju (Govinda), a taxi driver who dreams of love, and ends up trying to help Stephanie (Shannon Esra, a white South-African actress) find her Indian jackass of a boyfriend, even though Raju is falling in love with her as they journey around India. I'm not sure if this is the performance that brought Govinda back as I haven't seen much of him as of late, but it certainly is a solid one, and the romance developing despite communication difficulties is just so touching and heartfelt and punctuated by some of the best scenes in the film.. it's hard not to love this one. I was too busy enjoying it to screencap it, really.

So, what's the final judgment? I guess there isn't one, really. Maybe I'll rewatch in 2011 and realize what a wonderful joyride this movie is, despite its numerous flaws - the soundtrack is catchy and the picturizations are certainly memorable. Maybe this time it was just the wrong movie at the wrong time. The point is, I guess, that I wish some of these storylines had gotten their own films - their own chances to shine and be as lengthy and as elaborate as they needed to be. Then the filler stories wouldn't have had to be there. But it is what it is, I suppose. A tribute to love; through sickness and through health.

(And before you ask, I didn't mention John-Vidya because I am a heretic and not a huge fan of it. Vidya does some great acting but overall, I'm just not into it.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Geetas, Basantis and Hasinis: thoughts on women and feminism in Indian films.

Or: Am I a bad feminist for liking Indian films so much?

For those of us who aren't Indian and haven't grown up watching Indian films, especially those of us who're women and claim to be feminist, some people may wonder, why do we enjoy movies where a woman is more often a housewife than a lawyer? Films where the hero might slap the heroine and everybody, including the heroine, thinks it's okay? How can this be? Or is this really a question at all? I mean, not every feminist in the world picks apart representations of women in movies and books and song lyrics. At the same time, I think everybody has those lines that can and will be crossed. Some feminist theories emphasize the need not to make women feel guilty about enjoying this or that, but rather focus on why they enjoy what they do, and how they interpret it themselves.

One example I remember reading a semi-academic article on, was the "morning after" scene in DDLJ and how British South-Asian youths interpreted the scene. I can't link to the article now, but nevertheless, the interpretations of the scene brought up thoughts in me about how I personally saw the scene. As a huge fan of the movie, but not a very conservative person, I saw the part where Raj tells Simran he knows what honour means to an Indian woman, rather a statement about a fact (that honour/virginity is the most important a woman can have, as I certainly don't believe that's true), but rather as a show that despite his earlier, assy behavior, he respects Simran's values. Of course, you could argue it's a fair bit of assumption on his part to assume she subscribes to the "Indian" set of values despite being NRI, but perhaps through their time spent together, he knows her enough to know this much.

But I guess at the end of the day, it comes down to just that: interpretation and varying viewpoints. What offends one may be okay to another. I myself try not to get too deep into feminist issues, representations of women etc when watching Indian films, or any films for that matter. I find if I start to make things that are fiction hold up a certain standard of how this or that character should be, should do, should behave, I just end up disappointment. So I tend to go with my initial reactions: if a heroine is kickass and interesting, I'll go with it. If they're bland, annoying or boring, I'll shrug and try not to dwell on it. If they're interesting but make peculiar choices thanks to the conservative ideology the film is trying to send me (see also: Laal Patthar review), I might dwell on it but I rarely get very upset by these things.

There's a lot of bad things happening to women in Hindi/Tamil/Telugu films. I'll say that now, but I'd rather not dwell on it. At the end of the day, not even Hollywood films meet certain feminists' standards, so you know, it's all rather relative. What a fantastically original conclusion, is it not? I know, I know. This is a post I feel like I need to write, even though writing it is a struggle, as I cannot avoid generalizations.

Some facts speak for themselves: heroines are still secondary to heroes. They draw less audiences, get paid less and rarely get first billing. Especially after the cotton candy family melodrama became popular in the 90s, heroines, it seemed, had less and less to do on-screen. Women-centered films rarely achieve box office success. I'm not trying to argue this is always the case, there will be exceptions, I suppose, but in general, the rule seems to apply.

But in an attempt to focus on the positives, let's look at this way; things are constantly in motion and there's no way to predict what the future will bring. There was once a day when heroines did get first billing, and were the main draw of a film (I believe this was in the 1950's). In the 1970's plenty of heroines had jobs and distinct careers of their own. Perhaps we will see roles for women with more substance one day. Perhaps we don't need to have every movie pass the Bechdel Test (by the way, having taught about the films that would pass it, I can only really think of Chak De India and ..holy crap, is that it?). Though not that I think of it, perhaps it'd be better if more did..

I titled this post with mentions of famous "spunky" characters played in famous films (Geeta from Seeta aur Geeta & Geet of Jab We Met, Hasini from Bommarillu, Basanti from Sholay). But at the end of the day, I don't really want to inspect the characters through this lense; it's unfair to desire all representations of women to be like this. Just like the heroes, the heroines can be roughly divided into archetypes. In some ways, the treatment is equal regardless of gender; if you want to accuse characterizations of heroines in Indian films of being shallow, take a look at the heroes - they are not much less shallow, when it comes down to it.

This is a crappy thinky post because it's one where I hardly run into any conclusions. The matter is difficult and I don't really want to settle on one perspective to filter through all my various thoughts on the matter. As often, there's a fear of overanalysis somewhere in the back of my head: if I think about this too much, will I stop liking it?

So as usual, my approach is more instinctive; if it works for me when I watch it, it works. If it rubs me the wrong way, annoys me, or makes me want to critisize it, then I accept that. What I feel like I need to work on is to learn how to make judgments and stick by them; I mean, it's only a movie. While I will no doubt try to wrap my head around the cultural background of said film (as to understand its context), I can't just excuse whatever message the film might be sending that feels unacceptable to me simply because I'm not from the culture the film is from. It's not to say I disapprove or judge the culture, because as I said, I always try to put it into context and see why somebody from that culture might be more okay with it. But if a movie upsets me, on some feminist standpoint, or any point for that matter, I'll try not to put those feelings aside.

This isn't some kind of manifesto to say you'll be seeing critical feminist readings of Indian films from now on in this blog. No way, I still watch Indian films because I love them to death and wish to see more of them, not because I want to pick them apart from a particular prism. But as it's International Women's Day, and I've been trying to finish this damn post for months, I figured this is a good enough note to end it on.