Saturday, August 31, 2013

Aurangzeb - throwback that doesn't throw us very far.

When the premise of Aurangzeb begins quickly unfolding at the beginning of the film, I was instantly reminded of those 70's masala films where the backstory is told in 20 minutes, before we even get to the title screen. The tale of twins switching places, the importance of family (and nature versus nurture), inheritance of business and of values, these are all themes that crop up in Hindi films time and time again, but something about this particular set up reminded me more of 70's than of 2010's. And since I love 70's Hindi films, this was a very positive association.

Unfortunately, though, this is very much a film of the 2010's. There is no Pran as the dad or as the villain, there is no diamond smuggling, or divine intervention thanks to pious son praying regularly. There are no snazzy villain lairs or cigar-smoking baddies called Robert, or Helen wearing animal print while dancing. Instead, we get plots centering around more grounded, real issues – corrupt policemen making deals with corrupt politicians, making money alongside corrupt businessmen, off the backs of the common man, farmers and villagers (who are barely seen, of course, because in the end the human drama is all about those with power). Our modern night club scenes have whiskey but they also have cocaine. Our bad guys are sometimes our good guys, and vice versa – the moral ambiguity allows characters to switch sides in the middle of the film.

It's not that one is inherently better than the other, of course. There's a reason why 70's films are as they are, in the style that they are, and there are reasons why modern films have a different take on things. Aurangzeb is an okay movie, but it's not an excellent movie, and perhaps one reason for that is the way that its premise could've worked better at a different time, in a different setting. That's not to say that family drama in modern films feels dated – it's just that here, the modern dating doesn't really enhance the melodrama.

Arjun Kapoor plays twins Vishal and Ajay. Ajay is the spoiled, despicable heir apparent to their father Yashwardhan's (Jackie Shroff) empire, whereas Vishal has lived a good, clean life with his mother, thinking that the policeman (Anupam Kher), who saved him and his mother's lives, is his father. Arya (Prithviraj Sukumaran), the real son of the policeman, discovers Vishal and his mother upon his father's death, and the head of the family, Arya's uncle (Rishi Kapoor) decides to make Vishal infiltrate Yashwardhan's connections by posing as Ajay. Ajay is kidnapped, and Vishal begins living life as him, but things become complicated when Vishal begins to sympathise with his real father...

Perhaps the best thing about the film are the performances, particularly that of Arjun Kapoor. I didn't have very high hopes for him – he was wooden in Ishaqzaade, where I hated his character, and his performance did little to save the character from bad writing. Yet he does manage to carve two separate characters out of the twins he plays. Of course, the contrast helps – Vishal is soft where Ajay is hard, Vishal has humanity where Ajay seems to have none. I find it appalling how the story tries to carve a “lovable rogue” out of Ajay, when he is simply just an appalling human being for the way he treats people, particularly his girlfriend Ritu. I didn't see anything here that blew me away, but it's still early days, so hopefully his future roles are good.

Prithviraj and some of the older cast all do a fine job. The music that underscores the melodrama mostly seems to take away from it – it's always too loud or too dramatic for the situations it's trying to heighten. Perhaps the biggest failure of the movie is the lack of connection I felt to each character. The moral ambiguity messes with that in a way that kind of turned me off. We follow Vishal and Arya quite closely but I didn't really root for either in a big way at any point of the film, and as far as story-telling goes, that's a pretty big failure. Arya is set up as being corrupt from the first moments of the film, and Vishal just kind of comes off as pathetic at first, neither really endears me to them until the plot takes a few twists and turns.

Even in all its accomplishments in setting up an ambiguous world full of corruption, back-stabbing and intrigue, Aurangzeb is pretty unremarkable. I wouldn't recommend it, unless you were a huge, huge fan of one of the principals.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Go Goa Gone: just don't go.

It's really difficult to discuss Go Goa Gone without talking about my expectations for it. This was on my radar for a number of reasons: the directors had hit home-runs with both of their previous ventures, 99 and Shor in the City, Saif Ali Khan was involved (and I was hopeful that these two directors would bring out the best in him, as he was obviously passionate about the project, having a producer credit and all), the mix of stoner comedy meets zombie film seemed interesting, and finally, Kunal Khemu was among the cast. All signs pointed to this being an awesome film, especially when the first trailer made me chuckle a lot.

Three friends (the stoner loser, the nerd and the average guy trying to improve himself) go to Goa, one of them finds a girl, one of them gets laid, and all of them find themselves in a zombie apocalypse with a Delhiwalla gangster who pretends to be Russian. Surely this situation is fertile ground for some jump scares and some comedy, but what is truly disappointing about Go Goa Gone is exactly how it fails to live up to its premise at all.

The characters are the film's first failure. They're dumb but not lovable, and most importantly, they're flimsy. We're supposed to care about them, so it matters to us that they're in this desperate peril, and we're meant to chuckle at their idiocy, but the story fails to establish the characters as protagonists you could actually root for. Simply put, they're all pretty unlikable. Saif Ali Khan's odd badass Boris should be the kind of quirky side character who makes the film, but instead he too comes off as slightly tired. Are there funny one liners? Yes, but they're all the ones you saw in the trailer.  

I admit one reason for my disappointment might just be zombie fatigue. By the time this trend hit Indian cinema, English entertainment is absolutely inundated with zombie fiction, be it riffs on Pride and Prejudice (now with zombies!) or Brad Pitt saving the world from zombies, or Walking Dead exploring human drama (amidst zombies). But I also think that this could've felt fresh in the Indian context, and it's sad that it doesn't.

One reading of the zombies in GGG is that the provide a metaphor for excessive drug use, but this is a very accommodating way of looking at it – the film is not exactly rich with social commentary, as some of the best zombie films are. The extras don't make for very good zombies, even though the make up work was commendable, but perhaps the worst failing of the zombie genre is that it never feels like the protagonists are truly in danger. It's not scary, nor is it comically over the top enough to be funny. There are bits and pieces where the premise of zombies and stoner comedy come together, but those little sparks of life just aren't enough to liven up this film.  

I'm glad I saw it, in the sense that I didn't really believe others who said it wasn't that good, before witnessing this limp piece of film myself. It could've been so awesome, and yet it's just maybe okay at best, boring at worst.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

A decade in a life, and in film.

There is something poetic about the fact that while Indian cinema celebrates 100 years of existence, this year I can celebrate the tenth year anniversary of watching my first Bollywood film. If you don't know the story of the how that happened, you can read all about here. I didn't follow Indian films actively right away, obviously - I stumbled around, finding films I thought I might like, and ones I thought I ought to watch. It was only two years later, in 2005, that I actually began watching films on a less sporadic, accidental basis. I began to really get to know the stars, and look beyond the clich├ęs. I began hanging out on Bollywood forums and websites (well, mainly the BollyWHAT? ones) and I made a friend in my city, who let me borrow a bunch of films and introduced me to so many new things, be it older Hindi cinema or the wonderful worlds of Southie cinema.

In 2007 I was already somewhat of a veteran, in that I knew what I liked, what I didn't like and what I wanted to see more of, and started this blog to showcase my fascination to the world. Ever since then, it's been my own personal opinion repository, one I sometimes maintain with extreme regularity and passion and that I sometimes let fall to the wayside in a rather regrettable manner. My love for Indian cinema remains ever-present but fluctuates - one month I'm watching three films in an evening, the next I haven't watched a single film, or even rewatched an old favourite.

The love has never gone away, though, and Indian films is the one fandom I think I'll always come back to. Therefore it's probably odd to most people that in my time watching these films, in all my time taking in their sounds and sights and cultural ideas, I've never actually been to India.

And unlike for most people, I can't even claim that it's been an issue of time or money. I've had enough time and money to travel to other far away corners of the world - I've been to the US, twice, South Korea, twice and I've even swung by the United Kingdom enough times to make up the money for a plane ticket to India. But travel is an odd beast, and my problem with India has been that I haven't wanted to go alone, nor has traveling alone to India been recommended to me.

Weirdly enough, even as I've expanded my horizons and gained more in-depth knowledge about Indian society, politics, history and culture as a whole, what eventually made me finally go to India was film-related. I was exchanging emails with a long-time friend who I'd initially met online but eventually got to know face-to-face as well, when visiting her country. She was also a fan of Indian films, so I wrote to her about how much I was looking forward to what is surely the most curious casting in the most bombastic film saga of recent memory, Aamir Khan in Dhoom 3. Jokingly I asked her, "You wouldn't want to swing by India at the end of this year?" and to my great surprise, she replied she'd love to visit India (a second visit for her). So we began talking, and then we began planning, and now we're booking.

Are your eye-brows raised? "Did she just write she's going to India to see Dhoom 3, out of all the movies in all the years, Dhoom goddamn 3?" No, that's not it. It's more one of those wonderful things where circumstances just come together and collide to create a new thing. My former music teacher probably shows Bollywood to her students on a yearly basis. It just happened so that I was the only one in that class receptive to Hindi cinema's charms, and wanted to see more. Similarly, I've wanted to go to India for over 10 years now, but have never had a friend to go with, and then suddenly I realise there is a friend who is not only willing to go, but is happy to go see Dhoom 3 and embraces the idea (and whose tastes in film tend to line up with mine), and the release of Dhoom 3 happens to coincide with a decent time to go travel in India (not too hot, not too damp) and when it's convenient for us two Westerners to go, as it's Christmas holidays.

So you see, Dhoom 3 just happens to be at the intersection of all these good things. I don't expect worlds out of it, as a movie - it's just a movie, starring some people I like, and it's a movie I'd probably see regardless of the circumstances. The fact that circumstances just happened to fall together, after my joking question, was kind of perfect. I'll be the first one to tell you that Indian culture, or cultures, are rich beyond belief and to only watch the films would be missing out on the various aspects, both positive and negative, of an interesting nation and its people. At the same, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the films form the backbone of my personal attachment and interest in India. Thus it feels fitting that I'll be heading to India with somebody that I don't have to drag into cinemas against their will, and instead can go see films with, and visit all the historical, cultural and just plain interesting sights as well.

I'm so happy to be going to India, because it feels like a long overdue visit, and I'm even happier that it feels like I'm going to appreciate it a lot more, now that I've done my share of reading and studying India, and the fact that I'm going with somebody I like, and who I know is interested in similar things as I am. It also feels very fitting, that I'm going near the anniversary of when I first got into Indian films - almost as if it was always meant to be.

Kai Po Che.

I liked Kai Po Che. I watched it months ago, alongside the two other films I recently reviewed, and while it wasn't my favourite of the batch, it was probably the most well made of the bunch. It was in that considerate UTV style I think we've all gotten used to; interesting characters, quality production, attention paid to the story and much faith given to the director. The picture above namedrops Rock On and Rang De Basanti, two hallmarks of the quality we've come to expect from UTV, and two films I personally love.

So it was inevitable that I would begin to wonder why I didn't love Kai Po Che. It wasn't like there was anything considerable missing in the film - it was just a really good effort, packed with young talent, and a good story told at a decent pace, reflecting all the various events that shaped the lives of these young men in Gujarat. Carla's review mentions she's tired of stories about young men, and in all honesty, maybe I am, too, and maybe that's okay, given how many of my favourite films are about young men and their friendships.

On the other hand, this film makes me so pensive, because it makes me think about how I've changed as a viewer. I still get giddy about the same things - I love films with great music, fantastic colours, goofy action and red-hot chemistry between the leads. These things are what drew me into watching Indian films ten years ago. I still adore the masala and the quirk, but nowadays I also love older cinema, more sombre films, films that weave in politics and history and all the not-so-happy parts of Indian society as well as the bright colours of the festivals and lavish sarees. Films like Kai Po Che certainly provide a balance between the two, which is why it's a good film - it's just not a film that I happened to love.