Friday, February 17, 2012

A couple of initial thoughts on Dhobi Ghat.

I suppose it's fairly fitting that when I first tried to watch Dhobi Ghat, I was late and then, about 15 minutes into the film, the projector broke down. Over a year later, I finally get the film on DVD and begin watching again. The back of the DVD contains a lie: I'm watching a 97 minute film, expecting it to be roughly 178 minutes. So it's all a weird, splintered experience - first I just got a glimpse, and when I was finally getting into the characters, the projector died. Then I anticipated a longer story, and when the ending credits came up, I stared, puzzled, at my TV.

Of course, not the first time the back of the DVD has lied to me. Won't be the last, either.

Dhobi Ghat is a portrait of Mumbai, and four people in it. For a portrait of a city that at least has the appearance of constantly being in motion, this portrait is strangely still. A lot of time is spent on just surveying surroundings. A lot of it feels like that amazing cup of coffee on a Sunday morning that you sip, safe in the knowledge you don't have to be anywhere that day; you can just be. It's a languid film.

I certainly liked it, but I've yet to determine precisely how much. I enjoyed the way the four characters were varied - from the poor dhobi (washer) Munna played by Prateik, to the ultra-rich, educated NRI Shai (Monica Dogra), as this showed the dramatically different sides of the city. The jobs that Shai only sees as a sort of exotic tourist attraction that would make for good photographs, Munna actually does.

At first I thought about writing something about economic privilege and how it colours the film, and how it perhaps doesn't try to highlight the problematic aspects of it. Upon further thought, however, I realised it rather does, but the way it's portrayed, can be subtle. After scenes where Shai has begun to treat Munna as more of a friend, not a servant, we see him interact with Arun (the artist character played by Aamir Khan). To him, Munna's merely a servant. The difference hits the viewer uncomfortably in the face, even though Arun doesn't mean anything by it - it's just how things are. But the privilege of Shai doesn't disappear just because her and Munna get close. In fact, it only further highlights it.

While I was most fascinated by the story of Arun discovering the tapes of Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a middle-class housewife, brand new to marriage, the Shai-Munna story was much more revealing. Shai is basically the kind of character who in a different film would probably be the Bollywood heroine who'd eventually tone down her brat-like behaviour and become a Good Indian Woman for the hero to marry. In this film, however, you see her making choices that are frankly morally questionable. But she sails through life, where other people would run into bumps in the road, because of her privilege.

I want to say that the film achieved its goal, as it made me think about all of these things and more, but then I wonder - perhaps it had a more modest goal, of just throwing together some characters without flagging up that many questions in the viewer. As a debut film for director Kiran Rao, I wouldn't say it's impressive - it's well-made, and it's promising. I hope she delivers on some of that promise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Alternative Valentine's: pondering friendship.

Over here, we don't celebrate Valentine's as a day of romance, but as a day of friendship. I much prefer it - for one, I don't have to feel like a lonely person, and two, friendship is one of those things that definitely ought to have a holiday.
So I started to think about the status of friendship in Hindi films. Besides the classic "Yeh Dosti", there's the much quoted line from Maine Pyaar Kiya: It's not necessary to say sorry or no thank you in friendship.
I often wonder whether anybody actually took this line to heart and lived their friendships like this. As much as the line is a sweet thing to quote to your best friend when they've done something wrong or when you've done something wonderful to them (nothing to be sorry about, yaar - nothing to thank me over, either, that was nothing), it's not precisely true. In fact, perhaps the very opposite ought to be true. In friendships, you should thank your friend, and be sorry for causing them grief, because it just frankly shows you care.

But moving on. The anecdote goes, Farhan Akhtar set out to write Dil Chahta Hai because he noticed that the Hindi film hero's friends tend to disappear during to the second half of the film. They're there to help the romance along, provide comedy, offer support - but as soon as the film moves onto the main romance, the friends no longer have a function. So DCH puts the romance in the sidelines and makes the friendship the focus - the film isn't over until the friends are all together, nevermind the girls they get along the way.
This is an interesting notion, and very true in films, but perhaps - once again - not so much in life. Friends tend to stick with you through failed or difficult romances. But in great love stories, your soulmate is all you need - once you have him/her, what do you need these meddlesome friends for? They're better off finding their own soulmates, provided there's a subplot they can fit this into.

But there are some really wonderful, true-to-life portrayals of friendship in Hindi films. Friends don't always do a disappearing act - sometimes they're even the focus. And of course, there's the cliché of a pair starting out as friends and eventually realising their feelings for one another...
We are, well, at least I am, still waiting for some things: the female Dil Chahta Hai is one, as friendship between females seems to rarely get center stage or get elevated to that epic "Yeh dosti" type of friendship level. Again, there are exceptions - beautiful, cherished exceptions. But mostly I'm still waiting.
Then there are the absolute travesties, too. For example, to whom is Dostana a tale of perfect friendship? Lying and then attempted seduction on the sly is not what I call a friendship!

And of course, then there are friendships that are too epic for their own good, such as Main Khiladi Tu Anari.
And that, I think, is a good place to end this post on.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A small comforting thought: Abhishek Bachchan.

Whenever I think about the new batch of actors and actresses, the ones who've debuted in the period of 2009 - present, I keep this in mind: it took Abhishek Bachchan four years to show promise (Yuva), five years to deliver on that promise (Bluffmaster, Bunty aur Babli), and six years to really make it (Guru). The fact of the matter is, I'm really unimpressed by most of these new stars. I like some of them, but not that much. I see promise in a few of them, but again, I'm not feeling any passion yet.
Of course, it bears mentioning that times have changed. The early 00's were a different time, and not to get all nostalgic for a period that wasn't perhaps any sort of high point in Hindi film history - though good movies were made, as always - but nowadays, it just seems that everything moves faster. Stars are debuting in big films, and the pressure is on to make it faster. You've got to be good, and to be fair, most of them are good - well, most of them can dance and look good, at the very least. But that special charm is still missing, that acting ability that has to be beneath the abs or the gorgeous face in order for you to really win the audience over.
Again, this is fully subjective. If you feel like these new stars have what it takes already, more power to you; you'll get to enjoy their movies more. For me, that just hasn't clicked yet.

But if there's anything I hate, it's sounding like an old grump when I don't feel like one. I'm open-minded, I'm keeping my eyes open, I'm watching films with these new stars even though I'm not passionate about any of them.
And most of all, I remind myself: these things can take years, like they did for Abhishek, or Kareena.
As long as they don't take decades, like with Saif Ali Khan, I think I'm content in waiting...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Still gathering thoughts: sexuality & tragic stardom of The Dirty Picture.

Despite the perhaps all-too-academic sounding title, I simply wanted to write another post about The Dirty Picture for a very simple reason. I read bunch of reviews that looked at it critically, analysed it a bit and perhaps concluded it wasn't a film worth its hype, or even worth the price paid for a ticket. And even though I disagree with that assessment - I still love the film and anticipate rewatches! - I did agree with some points those reviews brought up. (This is not the first time this has happened, obviously. I can agree with a lot of things about my favourites which other people found fatal flaws.)


The biggest question for me are the multiple conundrums the film throws at us and perhaps doesn't quite resolve. Silk's sexuality gets center stage, but Silk herself - or even deeper, Reshma, doesn't. Perhaps rightly so, you may think. Isn't her sexual agency what made her who she is? It's what carries her through. She uses it to her magnificent advantage, and perhaps best of all, does not let anybody victimise her for doing so. She's not a meek girl who a sleazy producer propositions in a typical casting couch cliché; she goes out there and does whatever she feels she needs to do, and things simply click in place.

However, this is not a survivor story - when she has her final down to end the supreme high she's been riding on, she still has agency, but doesn't pull herself back out. She perseveres through hatred, but not sadness.

People have commented a lot on the fact that all this story is framed through the words and perspective of the man who hates her, Abraham. This is, depending on your perspective, either an interesting choice or a lazy one. Lazy one, because it allows Silk to be displayed precisely for this sexual agency that Abraham, in almost an unabashedly misogynist manner, loathes. It provides the masala and the titillation for the masses without scratching deeper into the character that Vidya Balan so beautifully portrays.

But this choice can also be an interesting one, because this allows the viewer to question their own viewership. When Silk is framed through Abraham, it becomes clear that we're getting a version of her story, rather than her actual story. We, just like Abraham, merely sit in the audience of the film of Silk, rather than truly stepping into her shoes. We're the same audience Silk builds her success on, but at the same time the one who categorises her into the role of a vamp, so she cannot show she can do more. We don't need to be shown more, we're happy with the sexy song and dance, to have our base need for entertainment catered to.

I say we, but obviously I don't know what everybody else was thinking when they began to think through this film. I can't make this judgment about everybody. But I did start to have these thoughts, because this kind of stardom, this idealised, fragmented idea of what a star is like, is very important to Indian films. The film remains a masala, and I'm not trying to portray it as anything but - it doesn't blatantly hold up a mirror to its audience, but there are these things that rather make me wonder.

I've got this book on Marilyn Monroe, only it's not a book about Marilyn herself, or rather - it's precisely that. It's about the Marilyn created, the stories told of her, the reality that is constructed with bits and pieces of her myth, from her dyed blonde hair to her tragic suicide. We all know her story, and we all have a version of this story; we see her as a victim, or a queen, or a little girl who was just lost, or a woman exploited by men, or whatever. And there are stories similar to hers, and these kinds of iconic women with tragic endings tend to fascinate the culture at large. What happened? What went wrong? Why wasn't she the ideal that we saw on-screen, but just a human being who was sad? Or is that just another interpretation, desperately trying to reach some sort of conclusive truth where none can be found?

So you can see why the film makers wanted to tell this story, because it grips people, it fascinates people, and everybody wants to get at some sort of greater truth of it all. That's the nature of stardom, even when it's built on raw sexuality, the distance between the "real" person and the "star persona".

The question remains - could we get Silk's real story? Or would we be more satisfied with this version, because it creates the myth on our behalf - even through the imperfect lens of Abraham's character?