Saturday, February 16, 2013

This old chestnut: SRK on Hollywood.

I was reading SRK's reflections (see that picture? Get it? I'm too clever, honestly) on the state of Hindi cinema and the discussions it brought out in people on GetFilmy's excellent post about it, and decided to make my own post, as I have a lot of thoughts on the topic. Here's a link to the Forbes article, but I wanted to give credit to GetFilmy for bringing it to my attention.

In a way, I honestly believe that these comments have more to do with where Shahrukh Khan is at, than where Indian film is at right now. His films as of late have been successes, but they haven't been the kind of successes he probably hoped they'd be, and they certainly haven't punched through as films people would love to re-visit time and time again. His name brings people to the theater, but hardly anybody is going back for a second viewing, much less a third.
But, as more people flock to cinemas, Hollywood’s finesse will eventually win them over. India may make the most movies in the world, but “With all due respect, the production values are s***. Why will my kids watch that kind of crap when Hollywood offers something slicker?”
As far as arguments go, this is not precisely the strongest. Anecdotal evidence based on your kids? Look, dude, I get it. You're a self-made guy who made their career and fortunes through Hindi films, and now you see that your kids are growing up in a different world than you, so they'll prefer different things - and this is a new discovery for you, perhaps. But you just cannot extrapolate all that to include every child in India, every adult in India or every Indian abroad.

Here's what I've learned about Indian audiences and their love for Hollywood films - people like spectacle. People everywhere like spectacle. Finnish people will go see Avatar in huge numbers, as will Americans, as will Brits, Germans, Koreans and people all over the world. Spectacle is one of those things that no other format than film can provide quite like film, so of course flashy, big budget entertainers will draw in people, just for the novelty of it all.

Like GetFilmy pointed out, Bollywood is not suffering. Content is becoming better, genres are getting more diverse, we get tons of films breaking the 100 crore mark, which used to be a fanciful dream for producers, we have new stars and old stars having the kind of success they've never enjoyed before.

Even more importantly, films aren't just entertainment - entertainment forms a part of people's lived experience, and through that, shapes identities and in some ways, a national and cultural identity. This is why DDLJ spoke to NRI's, and people still listen to HAHK songs, or quote Sholay, or whatever have you. And because Indian films are intrinsically Indian, they will never cease to have that sort of significance in some people's lives. This is not to say that if you are an Indian person who prefers American or French or Iranian films to those of your own country, you're somehow less Indian - that's not what I mean at all (after all, I'm not less Finnish for not liking Finnish films much). It's just that to some people, this part of the culture is very important.

A bad Hindi film might not entertain anybody better just because they have a cultural connection to it, but I don't think people who are as passionate about their own films as Indian audiences can be will ever just abandon it because the visual special effects aren't as flashy as something Peter Jackson or Christopher Nolan can conjure up. That's pretty simplistic thinking on Shahrukh's part. Production value is not the only thing people go see in films - it's certainly what some people look for, perhaps even to the detriment of their own enjoyment of less flashy films (be it indie, arthouse, low budget).
They spend more on pop corn, samosas and fizzy drinks than on the tickets.
Newsflash - this has been the case in the West forever. Even before the advent of illegal digital downloads and all the things driving up ticket prices in North America and Europe. This also seems to mostly look at multiplexes. People see films in other sorts of film theatres as well, don't they?

I'm not a businesswoman, so I'm not one to criticize Shahrukh's moves in the business world - it's his company, he can run it as he likes. But I also think it's shortsighted of him to just think about visual effects, flashy spectacles and all this other stuff that Hollywood will probably make better than Hindi films do, most of the time, simply because of the fact that Hollywood has been doing this stuff for aeons. Indian films should push themselves technically, for sure, and I'm all for that - Eega was a good example. But no film would be anything without actually being good - good acting, good music, good stories. To say Hollywood is going to take over is based on almost no evidence at all - in fact, Hollywood is itself in crisis because its age-old business formula is losing in the world of online streaming and targeted marketing. Bollywood is going through changes as well, but it's not failing.

I don't mean to harp on the man's personal career graph too much, but I do strongly feel that had his latest film been his Dabangg or Three Idiots, he wouldn't be saying stuff like this. Come back to us, Shahrukh - make a damn good movie that rides on both the content (a good story, solid direction, great songs) and your star power. Jab Tak Hai Jaan probably should've been just that, but wasn't. Nevermind.

Come back to us.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

22 Female Kottayam - a conversation starter.

22 Female Kottayam, a Malayalam revenge film from last year, is an unsettling watch. It takes explicitly admitted inspiration from other female revenge films of yesteryear, such as Kill Bill and Ek Hasina Thi, but pushes the concept a tiny bit further. 

As such, both the film and this spoilerous review have to be warned for discussion of rape, violence and sexual abuse. If you don't feel like you can stomach it, I won't be offended if you click away now.

Let's proceed. 

If I was just to talk about the film as a film, without taking into consideration all the things that affected my viewing of it - which I will shortly get to - I'd say this: Rima Kallingal does a splendid job as the lead, as do the other actors in the film. The narrative jumps, that seem to be quite common in modern Malayalam cinema, based on my little experience of it so far, work well and the pace never lets up. The cinematography is beautiful but grounded, and while I didn't feel that all the songs featured were necessary, they were enjoyable in the mix. 

As recent events brought the topic of rape into a national conversation in India (and subsequently elsewhere, as people in other corners of the globe rushed to point out to people that rape was far from being just an Indian problem), I feel as if I have to discuss the film through the lens of its rape depiction. How we talk about rape matters, especially when the conversation quite often contains widely-perpetuated myths about this crime. 

The first myth is that rape only happens to lone women who are out late and get attacked by strangers. This is not the case in the film. Tessa is raped by somebody she knows, and trusts, though he is not a family member or a close friend. 

The actual depiction of the rape is uncomfortable and unsettling, putting the audience in the position of Tessa. As rape tends to be a gendered crime, with women more often than victims than perpetrators, it's obvious that it will hit home more for some viewers than others. Regardless, it's a punch in the gut - there is nothing sexualized, romanticized or sanitized about the scene. It's as ugly, painful and brutal as the crime is. 

The second rape myth is that rape is about sex. We see this unfortunate myth somewhat tied to the rape in 22FK - the rapist asks Tessa to have sex with him, with the clear indication that he is not taking 'no' for an answer. Later on, in her revenge, Tessa performs an act designed to remove virility from her boyfriend who schemed against her. Let's just make this clear: rape is about power and domination. It's about using your power to take advantage and abuse somebody else. Whatever sexual excitement the rapist feels during the act comes through this abuse of power, the use of somebody weaker than them against the victim's will. This was my biggest problem with the film. Since an impotent person can rape, as penetration doesn't have to happen through a sexual organ, the revenge Tessa takes on her ex-boyfriend is questionable. On the other hand, he betrayed her trust but didn't physically abuse her himself - though what he did was just as sickening, to be honest.

The third rape myth is that rape can be the fault of the victim. This is sadly probably the most common myth, seen perpetuated by people in the media and others in daily conversations about rape survivors (or victims), in the case of the Delhi bus gang rape and others. Discussions about the clothing and behaviour of the victim feed the myth, and are essentially ways of limiting women and their choices in life - don't go there, don't wear that, don't do this or you're "inviting" rape. The fault of every crime, however, is on the perpetrator. They make the decision to abuse somebody, they do the crime and therefore the fault is theirs and theirs only. Since rape is primarily about power, they will obviously take advantage of somebody who they see as weaker, and that person may be drunk or asleep or alone, but there isn't a single situation where having sex with somebody who doesn't want it (or who is not in the position to want it, such as being heavily intoxicated) is okay. It's always rape, and rape is a crime. Thankfully the film does not perpetuate this vicious myth, though I don't see how it could - the narrative of "she deserved it" has no place in a film that puts the agency of the heroine first.

However, as it stands, 22FK really made me ponder my general stance on female revenge films that deal with rape, and how my position has shifted over the years. Ek Hasina Thi definitely remains a favourite of mine, but in Sarika was not sexually abused, she was just taken advantage of in an extreme way. In EHT, the revenge is definitely cathartic and desired by the viewer. In Kill Bill  the crime is horrifying but not rape and the film's obvious inspiration, the Japanese film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime), has the heroine revenge the rape and murder of her mother, not herself. I guess the crux of the problem is that rape becomes a plot device that pushes the heroine to go to extreme lengths to get her revenge. This is why I Spit On Your Grave, the original of the genre of rape revenge films, has a very questionable position - there can be something cathartic about showing a rape survivor take revenge on her rapists, but it's also messed up that the female lead has to suffer through this horrible crime in order to get that agency in the film.

On the other hand, I feel that if you put your central female character through the amount of injustice that these films contain, it only makes sense to have them bring a world of pain onto those who have wronged her (while it's not the way I'd sort things out in real life, in the fictional world it makes thematic sense). This is why I wish Ishaqzaade had taken a drastically different turn on the second half. So I guess my position is that if you must portray these sorts of stories, then it's good that the female characters get to avenge whatever wrongs they've endured - much like many male characters get in other revenge tales. However, it would also be good if for once, the female character didn't personally have to suffer so much in order to play this part in a film - especially such a personal violation as rape.

22 Female Kottayam is a good film, but it's not one I'd easily recommend, or rewatch myself. It contains some good performances, a realistic portrayal of a heavy subject matter, and a somewhat cathartic conclusion in terms of the revenge, but I'm not sure it offers anything so new or in such a novel way that it would be a must-see for everybody. It definitely fits a certain genre, and there are films that aren't quite as unsettling or as partly problematic as this one. Therefore I have pretty ambivalent feelings about it - I'm glad I saw it, but I'm not sure I'd have missed out on a lot, had I not seen it. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Charulata: the quiet craft.

The most stubborn person I know once told me I was the most stubborn person she knew. I'll admit to it - I am incredibly stubborn, particularly when it comes to the media I consume. I refuse to believe in the concept of classics being films you absolutely must watch, this idea that if you don't plough through them, you're uneducated as a viewer. I think classics are influential films, but that doesn't mean one has to sit through them just because they are classics - rather, I adamantly only watch films when I'm interested in them, regardless of their status or influence on later films. 

It was because of this stubborn attitude that I didn't watch a single Satyajit Ray film until I wanted to. At heart, I am a populist - I will watch something loud and outrageous before I'll watch anything quiet and contemplative, even though I respect the latter style of film-making enormously. But luckily things took a turn when Beth began obsessing over old Bengali films. I got curious, and from that curiosity an honest interest was born.

So I watched Charulata, the 1964 Satyajit Ray film based on a novel of another Bengali cultural giant, Rabindra Tagore.  

The film's international title, "The Lonely Wife" pretty much captures the plot. Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) is the wife of busy newspaper man Bhupati (Shaileen Mukherjee) who submerges herself in the world of Bengali novels. Bhupati arranges his cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) to live with them and keep Charu company, and get her to foster her talents in writing. 

Amal and Charu's relationship develops in a very subtle manner, and Ray's style gives a lot of potent, metaphorical visual themes, like the cage-like bars on the windows. As a very irregular viewer of this type of cinema, I appreciated the fact the film felt very accessible - I did not need to read three brick-heavy books on Bengal society, history or gender relations to catch what was happening on the screen. It was all clearly there for me to view and interpret. 

The performances were all-around solid. Madhabi Mukherjee carries the film with ease - we watch Charu figure herself out and understand her own emotions just in time to realise there isn't a way to go back. Soumitra Chatterjee was good as well, but there is slightly less to say about his character, really. Amal arrives practically bouncing with infectious energy, but leaves almost on a mysterious note - I wondered whether I actually knew the character, or his inner workings at all. 

I could draw a parallel between my own stubborn nature and that of Charu - she too seems to do what she wants precisely how and when she wants to - but that might be a little too forced. The film didn't make my favourites, but it made sure I'll be checking out more of Ray and more old Bengali cinema.

Regardless, if you're like me and looking for a film to begin your journey into Ray's filmography or the Bengali cinema in general, this is a good place to start. It's gorgeous to watch as it is a thoughtfully crafted piece of cinema. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mini-reviews, part 10.

Once upon a time in the land of lazy blogging, long long ago, I drew up a list of every Indian film I'd watched up until that point (the overall sum came just under 200 those days), randomized it and started posting "mini reviews", short reviews on what I thought of each film, in batches of ten.

This is the tenth installment in the series. Enjoy!

91. Johny Mera Naam (1970) - I watched this Vijay Anand thriller quite early in my Hema loving days, and I don't quite recall what my problems with it were, to be honest. Perhaps it's that I'm just not that in love with Dev Anand as an actor, but I do recall enjoying the cute songs and Hema of course. Time for a rewatch? Possibly.

92. Singh Is Kinng (2008) - Remember when Akshay was the box office king? This was then. I enjoyed it, being down with a cold while watching and all, because as inane as SIK, there was something about the Akki-Kat jodi and I still think fondly of the hilarious climax scene (I won't spoil it, but it's action-packed, it's romantic, and it's just fun).

93. Jhumroo (1961) - My CD of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi had the soundtrack of Jhumroo as well, so I had to watch it after falling in love with the songs. It was okay, but Chalti and Half-ticket are definitely the more recommendable Madhubala-Kishore comedies of their time.

94. Indra (2002) - My first taste of Chiranjeevi, the king of Telugu cinema. I was not in love, but neither did I dislike the film. It's a perfectly passable, fun Southie masala. I blogged about it at length here.

95. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) - Wonderful memorable classic. Makes cricket seem interesting even if you know nothing about it. I love it, though I always forget how much, until I rewatch it again.

96. Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) - Charming oldie comedy where Ashok Kumar inforces a "no girls allowed" rule to a car repair shop, Kishore Kumar goofily breaks this rule by cavorting with the stunning Madhubala, and many memorable tunes are sung. Gem!

97. Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) - Gandhigiri for the new generation; feel-good classic with the second outing of Sanjay Dutt as the nation's most beloved goonda. Get well soon, corrupt politicians and the like. If you missed this one, watch it, watch it now.

98. Lal Patthar (1971) - Hema Malini's own favourite out of all of her roles. I found it interesting, but loathed the treatment of Raj Kumaar's character and all that he is forgiven for. I blogged about it at length here.

99. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) - I used to like this film a lot, as it was cute and my introduction to  Saif Ali Khan. Nowadays, well.. not so much.

 100. Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega (2001) - This is the little comedy that could. Fardeen Khan, Aftab Shivdasani, Sonali Bendre, Twinkle Khanna and Saif Ali Khan star in this slightly off-beat situational comedy that rather won me over when I first watched it in the middle of my worst Saif enthusiasm. Check it out if you're curious but be warned, I'm not entirely sure how well it holds up. I do recall Johnny Lever being exceptionally good in this, and actually funny!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Eega - wouldn't hurt a fly? Make that, couldn't hurt a fly.

Two parts ingenuity, three parts exploration of the old formula - these are what make up Telugu cinema's undoubted mastermind SS Rajamouli's Eega, dubbed into Hindi as Makkhi (I personally saw the Telugu original). He doesn't re-invent the wheel by making the audience care so much about the fate of a common housefly or its epic revenge tale against one man, but so much can be said for the execution of it. Clever, visual, riveting to watch and just marvelous masala, Eega takes a rather strange premise and turns it into one of the best films of last year.

The story is (as you might've guessed) one of rebirth. Nani (actor also named Nani) has been longing for Bindu (Samantha) for over two years, and just as she shows signs of being interested, Nani thwarted  by our resident villain Sudeep (Kicchan Sudeepa ..or just Sudeep) who kills him. Just plain murders him, around 30 minutes into the film. Luckily, Nani gets reborn as a common housefly, and is ready to exact revenge on Sudeep, and stop him from creeping on Bindu, who now thinks she's lost the love of her life.

The premise changes a couple of things about this masala. We don't get that many songs (though the ones we do get are great), and the hero being a fly means we don't get that much of his romantic antics. For the lack of that, we get much more of Sudeep's excellent villainry. He exudes moral corruption, greed and icky lust for our heroine, so there is genuine joy in watching him slowly unravel in front of us.  

I actually don't want to discuss the specifics of what happens after Nani's rebirth, because discovering all the twists and turns of the tale are the real joy of the story. To spoil them would be the spoil the film, which I definitely don't want to do - this post a full-fledged recommendation.

If forced to give a criticism, however, I have to say Nani's performance did not make me want him to stick around any longer than he did. He is your typical hyper young hero you see every so often in Telugu action masalas. Sometimes that can be very likable, but in here, Nani just doesn't quite work for me. He's too much of a buffoon, too hyper and goofy but never actually funny. 

These might just be character traits that the actor cannot do much to fix, however, so I preserve judgment on him as an actor for a later role, but for now, I was glad to see the guy replaced by a CGI-fly. 

Sudeep is just great as our striking-yet-slimy villain. His performance against the CGI really carries the film, as it should. He's on the right side of exaggerated, never as cartoony as the character could've been and he's just fun to loathe, and easy on the eyes as well. I pretty much loved him in this, and look forward to any future ventures he's in.

The CGI is for the most part seamless. There are only a few times where the fakeness of the graphics is so obvious you get a bit jerked out of the story, but for the most part, the graphics serve the story. The visual story-telling overall is pretty much top-notch.

The film has a fitting narrative device of a framework story - a kid asking their father to tell them a bedtime story - so it's not like the story needs to be realistic. And it really isn't, nor does it need to be. This is essentially an execution of a peculiar idea, and one that works surprisingly well. As such, it should be celebrated.

Samantha also does a good job as Bindu. Her part of the story is where the film goes on over-drive in terms of implausibility, but I think her performance sells it and while there are some aspects I find quite questionable (like the continued implied romance between her and Nani), she's very effective in the role. It's certainly more demanding than your average Telugu heroine part. 

Whichever version (Telugu, Tamil or Hindi) you can get your hands on, Eega is a film worth checking out - for the peculiar premise, for the execution of that premise, for the awesome villainry or just because it's a film unlikely to be replicated any time soon. Whatever your reasons for watching the film may be, I think you'll enjoy it. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Filmi year 2012: Appendices.

An addendum to my previous Filmi Year 2012 post, because don't you just hate it when this happens: make a end-of-year post in December because that's what everybody bloody does, and then watch all the films you missed in January, and it alters your perception of the previous year?

Yeah. Yeah.

So I'm correcting that now, and it's my blog, and I can do what I want. 

An Absolutely Once-in-a-Lifetime Film Experience: Gangs of Wasseypur

I'm not the biggest fan of Anurag Kashyap. I enjoyed the docu-drama Black Friday, and I thought Dev.D was a good effort that introduced the audiences to a lot of great talent (Kalki Koechlin, Mahie Gill, Abhay Deol, Amit Trivedi's awesome soundtrack) but I appreciate both films more as feats of film-making than as personal favourites. I wanted to see GoW because it was such an ambitious project, but I didn't expect I'd love it. 

And yet, wow, I completely did. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's performance, the amazing music, the journey through history.. There are many things to love here, and even though there are flaws in the 5 hour extravaganza as well (some slack, lots of telling-not-showing), it's just a brilliant film. I wish it was easier to carve out more than five hours of the day to rewatch it - or indeed that I could sell this film to any of my friends, making them interested enough to sit through it with me. 

It's not for everybody, but I personally never thought I'd be interested in an epic gangster film detailing Bihar coal mafia history, and yet I was. So if you can handle the violence, do check it out.

Most Bombastic Fantastic Film of the Year: Eega (review pending)

The premise is delightfully out there, brilliantly executed and the story just takes you for a ride, whether you're skeptical of it working or not. Eega had a lot of buzz (ha!) around it so I knew I had to check it out, and I'm very glad I did.

Most Aggravating Film of the Year: Student of the Year

Ishaqzaade had nothing on this. It's sad that it's another film with a lot of fresh faces, but hopefully they all move onto less annoying projects.

Films People Might Do Well To Check Out: Chakravyuh and Jannat 2

I feel like "underrated" might be overselling these films. I liked them quite a bit, but I'm not sure they're for everybody. Both are very violent, for one thing. Still, I think they're worth a cautious recommendation. Curiously enough, both share one actress - Esha Gupta, a newcomer. Sadly, her performances are not what makes these films rec-worthy.

Chakravyuh was a good, issue-based movie about Naxalism, that featured some fine performances -  regardless whether you're writing a doctoral thesis on Naxalites, or literally have no idea who Naxalites are, it's a film that will give you some food for thought.

Jannat 2 is great fun for coming from the Bhatt house. Emraan Hashmi is great in it, Randeep Hooda also does well in his role, and it's just a good time, really. I called it a bromance in my review, which is such an appalling term to use, but it's also just true - this is the story of a fledgling friendship between a crook and a cop, and they form the best part of the film. There is also plenty of cheese, especially in the romantic storyline, but overall it's just a fun, violent thriller flick.