Saturday, December 27, 2014

The year end romantic film bloat: Khoobsurat, Daawat-e-Ishq & Kill Dil.

So it finally happened: Shaad Ali has has a misfire that I actually agree with the haters on. Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was a film not everybody was on board with (critics and audiences loathed it, but it gained a cult following that cannot stop rewatching Ticket To Hollywood), and Bunty aur Babli is not a universal dil squish, either, but I legitimately found myself telling a friend earlier this year, "He hasn't made a bad film yet." Well, he has now.

Kill Dil arrives limply clichéd from the get-go, but never catches fire in terms of story, visuals or emotions. The tale of two rascals (Ranveer Singh & Ali Zafar) separated by one of them wanting to turn good as love conquers all (Parineeti Chopra) while a father figure disapproves (a spry Govinda performance) just never really goes anywhere interesting, and it's a shame.

I get the sense it's trying to occupy some clever mid-ground between being an unapologetic tribute and/or parody to 90's cheeseball actioners and a more modern take on an age-old story, but it never reaches the point of just being a story you buy into. Instead, everybody in the film falters when the story provides such a shaky surface for them. Ali Zafar is good but doesn't frankly get to do much, Govinda has some great moments but his character is unlikable, and the main pair simply doesn't exude much of anything, despite trying very hard. I wish I had an explanation for why this doesn't work besides the obvious two: don't center your movie around cold-blooded murder, and aspire to be more than a tribute to older films.

Khoobsurat at least partly succeeds in being a part of the genre it aspires to be: a Disney princess romance in the 21st century. Sonam Kapoor's Milli is a your standard young adult novel heroine, sub-sect Mary Sue batallion. She's clutzy! She's good at her job! She cares about other people but has zero social skills! She says the wrong thing, it's awkward! A cute guy (newcomer, way-too-good-for-all-of-this Fawad Afzal Khan) is annoyed by her at first but really likes her, though, because she's just so lovable.

I liked this film for the fluffpiece that it was, and then I got increasingly impatient with it. I realised quickly I was no longer a young girl, but a young woman; I no longer want to be a princess. I can't believe in these inane fantasies anymore unless they have some sort of characterisation and fantastic acting behind them, and Sonam doesn't quite get there. It feels uncomfortable to watch her try; the best of acting is so effortless, you aren't forced to think about it as you watch somebody emote their way through a fairly simple scene. About an hour in the movie had lost me, and I wasn't going to be swept away by it. Ah well.

What a strange year for Parineeti, to start out as one of my absolute favourite newcomers of the past years and then end up with a confusingly mixed resumé towards the end, completely outdone by a woman whose first film was my worst film of 2012 by a long, long shot (Alia has come a long way, hasn't she?). I wasn't particularly into Hasee Toh Phasee, Kill Dil was disappointing, but hey, at least she had this one. Daawat-e-Ishq, a feast of love, was a vaguely food-themed movie that touches on the issue of dowry, and ends up being a modestly lovely little romcom. At the same time, however, it's all just so unmemorable I almost struggle to come up with other adjectives to describe it. There's some cuteness, delicious food scenes, and some solid acting by both of the young leads (Aditya Roy Kapoor).

The big conversation of the past few years has been the continued success or lack of success of the new generation of actors. Looking over at Parineeti Chopra's filmography, she seems destined to pick films that aren't quite amazing, and therefore never display her skills in a way that her fans, such as myself, would quite hope. It's quite easy to say "pick better movies" but who knows what kind of offers she's even getting. I still continue to hope for good things for her; she's got a spark that I think is missing from many of the other newcomers, so I hope that her presence is here to stay.

As the filmi year 2014 draws to a close, I'll be writing up my year's end post, and once again must apologise for not maintaining the blog as diligently as I probably should've. Still, I did a lot of travel this year, as well as a lot of work, and I even crossed some things off my bucket list. I've also got some movies I've yet to write about - including my favourite film of the year.

Talk to you soon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mumbai Police: a lesson in story mechanics.

I'm a real admirer of breaking up chronological order in story-telling. At times it may feel like a cheap gimmick to employ when one's story is not that intriguing to begin with, but sometimes it really draws the best out of a simple story, and when it comes to movies, it's a very interesting way to allow the audience to play a detective, piecing together the story as it slowly gets revealed to us, and to give your actors something to work with. They can play with what to show and what not to show the audience, and all the interesting facets of a character, being revealed slowly over time, all of this can not only help a story but make a story stand out.

Modern Malayalam films seem to love to do this. You set up a story where the subject of the mystery gets peeled back like an onion, layer by layer, in form of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Luckily, Malayalam cinema seems to also have plenty of capable film makers able to hold these narratives together in a coherent manner.

Mumbai Police (2013) got such rave reviews that even I, who barely knows what's happening in Kerala in terms of cinema, heard about it. Prithviraj plays Antony Moses, a detective who gets into a car accident and loses much of his recent memory. More's the pity, as he had just figured out who killed fellow officer Aaryan (Jayasurya), and must now keep his memory loss a secret from everybody apart from brother-in-law and senior officer Farhan (Rahman), while piecing together the case from scratch, to reach his previous conclusion about the killer.

The real triumph of the film is simply the steady, gripping pace with which it lays out the mystery, and all its components. We don't quite know Antony, because he doesn't quite know himself - he's alien even to himself due to the memory loss, and so every reaction to him is new to us as much as it is to him. Rahman's performance simultaneously reflects everything and nothing all at once, and Jayasurya's performance as the affable Aaryan completes the trio of stellar performances. The only real problem with the film - apart from some slightly spoilerous niggles I might have about it - is the fact that I don't know if such an intense story that relies heavily on the slow reveal would stand up many a rewatch. With that said, I absolutely must see it a second time.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Main Tera Hero. It's a film. It exists. It's not very good.

Every now and then I wonder why I watch movies, besides the fact my life is boring and ultimately empty, and circle back to thinking that in some ways I watch each film with the sincere wish that it's so good I would want to rewatch it, and make it a repeat pleasure, as opposed to just a memory of a couple of hours spent (or wasted). Not every movie has to reach this lofty goal, and indeed, if only one in ten films I watch, that's still pretty good for me.

That's probably why I hadn't seen a David Dhawan film until now. Some directors just have a style that you don't really have to watch to know; watching a few songs, a scene here or there, and reading other people's writings, you kind of pick up on what makes a director distinct from others. And much as I love comedy, every comedy I consider fantastic is not described by adjectives like "brainless" or "ear-ringingly loud". So I just figured out his oeuvre wouldn't be my thing, so I smartly avoided it, until the point came when his latest film actually interested me a little, and I thought, "How bad could it be?"

And oh boy, was this terrible, and I laughed a lot, mostly at my stupid self. At least it didn't damage my view of anybody: I have some fondness for Varun Dhawan, and I think at one point I even had fondness for Ileana (see also: Aata obsession), and I think I still have the same fondness for both of them. But yeah, this was not great.

Main Tera Hero stars Varun Dhawan as Seenu, an unlikable human being who seems to be on some magical stimulant perhaps called life, who fails upwards into a Bangalore college and proceeds to torment the existence of beautiful Sunaina (Ileana). Woefully, Sunaine already has a stalker who only likes her because of her looks, the menacing Angad (Arunoday Singh), and therefore a game of groan-inducing one-upmanship ensues, and Sunaina looks beautiful during it. On the second half, this riveting tale is complicated by the appearance of Ayesha (Nargis Fahkri), who's in love with Seenu, only not really, because she's just kind of dim. Comedy!

For a comedy to be so loud and clichéd and still have a chance of working, everybody has to commit and go all in on it, and for the most part, the cast does so. Arunoday Singh as Angad actually does extra work, and something about his ludicrously massive body makes for surprisingly good physical comedy. Varun commits, too, but Seenu is such a loathable character to begin with, it's hard to truly enjoy it. Amidst the ridiculousness, you do see those glimpses of that 'it' factor that may be the thing that made Varun stand out in the Student of the Year trio, in my eyes, but those glimpses are rather fleeting. The actresses do fine with the pitiful little they're given to work with, the songs are grating, but the movie doesn't thankfully drag.

Still, I don't know, unless you're the type with the taste for this breed of comedy, it's not particularly worth your two hours. Unless, I don't know, Varun shirtless appeals to you on some kind of primal level, in which case, hey, have at it. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

What makes Indian cinema so easy to ignore?

For over a decade, or at least as long as I can remember, the Helsinki International Film Festival has had at least one Indian film in their programme, every single year. Last year, we were treated to four different films, ranging from the indie gem Monsoon Shootout to the big budget extravaganza of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. A few years back, we even got the megalomaniac Enthiran, sending every Tamizhan Finland-dweller to the theater to whistle at Rajnikanth's entrance. Overall, HIFF has consistently served up something delightful for us few Bollywood fans habiting this northern land, and a rare treat for those people who love the occasional Indian film, but don't necessarily seek them out all year round.

Then this year, nothing. Zilch. Kuch nahin.

When asked for a reason, HIFF responded on Facebook that another film festival would have a few Bollywood aces up their sleeve later in the spring. No offence to Season Film Festival, which I like but tend to miss due to it springing up (no pun intended) on me and my schedules every spring, but I found this response even more infuriating than not having a single Indian film on the schedule. So there's not enough room for two festivals to both have a few films from a country that produces hundreds of films every year?

Without getting deeper into the flawed booking models of domestic film festivals, I've always wondered why it is that Indian cinema is so universally easy to ignore, by film festivals and well-known international critics alike. The same people who appreciate varied genres, various types of films from all kinds of corners of the world, commercial, non-commercial, small budget, big budget, success or flop, all have no-India blinders on, apart from the occasional dip into the Irrfan Khan fare or a Satyajit Ray retrospective. In this post, I'm going to explore a few potential reasons and ways to argue against them, or think outside of them.

1. Indian cinema is seen as one genre. 

Not every Indian film is a romantic comedy musical with young people running through fields and dancing around ceaselessly, yet this is such a dominant stereotype that the whole concept of "different" cinema has become a weird cliché. The confusion arises from the two vastly different forms of genre distinction. In Hollywood, certain genres that we know now today as comedy, horror, romance, action etc, formed to serve a certain purpose. In commercial Indian cinema, a particular format of incorporating song sequences into narrative sequences without fully adopting the genre trappings of what Hollywood calls 'musicals' became largely the norm, influenced by not just foreign cinema, but local theater traditions as well. Slowly, the concept of masala, having varied proportions of different genres fluidly co-existing in one film, became the ideal in commercial cinema. Potboilers would entertain all kinds of audiences at once.

In modern Hindi cinema, and in other Indian film industries as well, the masala tends to be both a format and a genre. You can have masala format for a genre film - the song and dance sequences in a gangster film, the melodrama in a sports film - as well as have a full-on masala film, with a romantic track, a comedy track, and action, drama (to paraphrase the drunken paramour Veeru from Sholay, "emotion, drrrrrama, trrrragedy"), villains and mothers and heroines and songs, all thrown into the pot and stirred to perfection. There is a tendency to regard all of this as one and the same, even though they're two very different, and both valid, ways of making a movie work for the local audiences.

The logic of this dismissal works in two ways: one, lump different types of films with little in common to a "masala" genre that people outside India rarely understand to begin with, and then two, to highlight everything that isn't masala (either formatted as masala, or in the 'genre' of masala) as being different and alternative and completely out of the ordinary, even when 'out of the ordinary' in this case could easily be the vast majority of movies produced in India. Indian film fans find themselves recommending films by telling non-fans, "This is different," because the prejudice towards what is "the norm" in Indian cinema is so prevalent among international moviegoers. Indian films, for all their variety, are at best lumped into a fun colourful ball of frothy masala, and at worst regarded as a universally understood joke.

2. Indian cinema does a poor job marketing itself (and so does everybody else). 

The saddest thing about this "all the same" misconception is that at times Indian industry people perpetuate it themselves. If you take a drink every time an actor or a director promotes a movie by calling it different, you'll drink yourself to death before you finish a copy of Filmfare (I exaggerate but still). The failure to promote a different idea of Indian films doesn't stop there, though. In most countries of the world, Indian films are scarcely available, subtitled or dubbed to local languages, or even to a lingua franca, such as English. In the places where they are available, they're barely marketed to local audiences outside the Indian diaspora. When they are marketed, they are usually marketed as "different" (to what the stereotype of Bollywood films is), even though the local non-Indian audiences might have no clue whatsoever what the actual Indian films that fit the norm look like (and when they see such films, they may actually very much enjoy them).

I'm not pointing the finger at Bollywood or Tollywood or anybody else, because I'm as guilty of this as anybody else. When somebody asks me for recomendations, my mind jumps to the Band Baaja Baarats  and Amar Akbar Anthonys of the masala world, then back-pedals to something "different" from those, as if masala is a shameful thing, as opposed to a wonderful, unique, amazing form of making films. It's a hard cycle to get out of, so I've tried to take a step back and instead ask the person, what types of films they like. Indian films have all kinds. Take your pick.

But it is tragic, because there is so much cinema that even I, a voracious and mostly fearless explorer of Indian cinema, am missing out on, due to lack of availability or subtitles. Whether it's Malayalam films, or older Tamil films, it can be a struggle to find information, recommendations, subtitled DVDs, you name it, there's a lack of it. This is very unfortunate, and sadly there isn't really an easy fix for it.

3. Quantity doesn't signify quality.

The above is very much true, but I don't think quantity of films produced is the only reason why Indian films should demand more from film authorities and the world-wide film industry. It's like this: I'm not saying you have to like Indian films, or even respect Indian films, because I recognise there's tons of cinema out there I don't know about, understand or care for (with that said, I do keep an open mind). What I am saying is that there should be more recognition, in whatever form, of the true merits of Indian cinema. Looking aside the silly misconceptions, the big production numbers, the musical numbers, and the Thriller parodies, here is what Indian cinema really is:

It's an absolutely one-of-a-kind film country, with a distinctly unique history when it comes to genre and presentations of it, with multiple, interesting and thriving local, regional film industries (both commercial and more arthouse-minded) that serve important functions to local cultures and languages. For better and for worse, it's influenced Indian politics and society, and continues to do so today. It connects a huge diaspora back to their place of origin. It's at once localized and regional, and national, and international and global.

It's just too damn interesting to stay ignorant about, and too vast to dismiss entirely.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bobby Jasoos, a mystery of modest charms.

 Ideally, a film about a private detective would marvel with its tightly plotted and well-scripted twists and turns. Bobby Jasoos is more focused on the detective herself, enthusiastic and smart and also a little foolish and inconsiderate, basically a nicely fleshed out female protagonist that not many actresses in Hindi cinema get to play in most of their films, but Vidya Balan seems to, in nearly every film of hers.

Bilkis Ahmed, the titular Bobby, is determined to become a private eye despite opposition from her father and derision from a more experienced detective, who laughs her out his office, time and time again. Unfazed by this, Bobby sets up her own shop, and not long after, a mysterious Aneez Khan (Kiran Kumar) hires her with a big paycheck to track down a girl with very few clues to identify her by.

The central case of the film unfolds at a nice pace, but perhaps more satisfying is just to watch Bobby in action, and all the side characters that help her or deter her. She's a fantastic, career-driven woman over 30, and that's just really refreshing, in many ways. You could argue the film should've aimed higher, delivered a more devastating twist, filled in those plot holes deftly, but I'm content with what it is; a Vidya-flavoured treat that surprises positively in some aspects, and is a bit of a letdown in others.

Bobby's love interest is the newcomer Ali Faizal's Tassavur, a popular TV journalist who is one of Bobby's initial clients, as he hires her to look into the backgrounds of girls his father wants him to marry, so that the match can be derailed and he can continue being a bachelor. From their initial scenes, you can tell Bobby is both annoyed and exhausted by this guy, but their continued chemistry is undeniable, whether they're bickering with one another or becoming partners in crime. Ali Faizal is a real find.

As delightful as the romance was, I didn't find myself in need of the other masala features, such as the many (unmemorable) songs the films has. Equally unimpressive is the bit of broad comedy the film takes a swing at by having Bobby in various disguises; a gimmick that doesn't quite work as well as the genuine situational comedy. It's really hard to criticise, though, that's how much of a treat the film really is. There are a number of other little things I could discuss as mildly disappointing facets, but again, they're so minor, I feel like I'm quibbling, or spoiling things about the film others should probably see for themselves.

So I'd without a doubt recommend it. In a year full of fun, interesting female roles, this is one of the most fun, and if you like the lead, you'll easily enjoy this one.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mardaani: heroism for today.

Films react on a delay, and so it is only now that we're getting to see films that draw from the impact of the Delhi bus gang rape in late 2012, and the resulting larger discussion about violence and harassment of women in India. It's not like discussion or backlash has ever quieted since the Delhi case and the ensuing protests. Violence against women makes headlines in India every single day, and should remain the topic of discussion, much as it should worldwide, in every country, including the one I'm writing from right now.

Prakash Sarkar's Mardaani (Fighter) enters this discussion as a grounded cop drama, centered on Shivani Shivaji Roy (Rani Mukherjee), a no-nonsense cop working in Mumbai's crime branch. When an orphaned girl Pyaari Shivani has a personal connection to goes missing, she's on the hunt for the kidnapper. As the crime syndicate head Karan (Tahir Raj Bhasin) contacts her to taunt her, a game of high stakes cat and mouse develops between them.

The story is simple as it doesn't need to be much more. Pyaari's kidnapping and disappearance reveals a brutal, disturbing business in which young girls are traded as any other illegal commodity on the market, like drugs or guns. If there are any filmi flourishes added to this side of the story, there need not be, because just the reality of it is shocking enough. Thankfully at least in the world of film, we get catharsis - Shivani is precisely the right person for the job, following up clue after clue, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, alongside her team.

Rani Mukherjee plays the role cool as a cucumber. You could accuse the character of the same exaggerated flawlessness as many a film cop, but what I'd argue is that men get these roles dime a dozen, whereas seeing this kind of badassery from a woman is pretty rare. Let us have it, for once, in all its exaggeration. Let's allow Shivani to be awesome without undercutting it one bit.

Another thing I really enjoyed is that while they allow Karan's character to get some decidedly cool villain dialogues where he gains the upper hand, and even a moment of distinct humanity and emotion, there is never a moment in which you truly feel sorry for this garbage human being. Poor child trafficker is not a trope anybody needs to see, and while newcomer Tahir Raj Bhasin puts in a good performance, there's not an ounce of me that likes the character.

The final couple of scenes pack such a punch we might as well unpack them, but to do so, I must discuss some spoilers. Feel free to take this as a full-fledged recommendation, with the caveat that if you are a sensitive viewer who cannot stomach violence or the heavy subject matter, you naturally should skip out on the movie, no matter how good or (in my view) important it is. It's fine, not all films are for everybody.


Before I get to Shivani's monologue, there is another key scene earlier on the film, in which a Delhi police boss tells her to essentially back off, and uses the red flag phrase for women in any work place, "you're getting overly emotional". It's an important scene because it demonstrates a point Shivani later demonstrates by somewhat advocating for 'encounters', Indian slang for a tactical murder of crime suspects or criminals commited by the police. The police higher up is not malicious, but his attitude speaks about a lack of interest when it comes to these cases. "What's one girl, why get so invested?" he is essentially asking, but it's the same question thousands of police officers in India ask themselves, while they fail to solve the cases of disappearance, kidnapping, rape, murder etc. Female lives barely matter in the greater scheme of things.

Shivani's veiled acceptance of encounters sits uneasily with me, but her monologue brings up an important point that beyond the questionable behaviour by the police, the next step in the judicial system - the courts - are just as disinterested in the importance of women. They may be bribed, or influenced, or simply misogynist so as to not rate the life of a woman as important as that of a man. We see this, worldwide, where rape victims are questioned on their attire and sexual history, and criminals with power and influence in society can brush aside serious crime accusations with a flick of a judicial wand.

In Mardaani, it is the victims who finally get to enact revenge on the criminal, because this is a film, after all. It's a difficult thing, because as a viewer it felt right and wrong simultaneously, because in the context of the story, I needed this ending, but in the big picture of things, one dead garbage human doesn't change the system of wrong that allowed him to successfully thrive and commit horrible acts. But that's my heavy-hearted Weltschmerz-suffering overly pensive side, perhaps. The good guys won here. And I'm really thankful for that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Traipsing through underwhelment; some mini-reviews of films.

Miss Lovely (2012 originally/2014 wider release) - I know, I know, this doesn't belong here, but I had to be honest about this. I love a lot of things about this movie; Nawazuddin Siddiqui is number two, while number one is the excellent cinematography. This camera knows where it wants to be, and creates a very interesting visual world for the film, complemented by fantastic period setting and accompanying art direction. Superb. Everything else, though? Plot, characters? I could take them or leave them. The depiction of the sleazy-yet-honest world of the A rating was fantastic, but I was never sucked in, fascinated by what was happening. Was it good? Yes, definitely. But I didn't love it.

Special Chabbis (2014) - I've tried to finish the last hour of this movie for about five to six times now, and I've failed each time. I can't figure it out. This got good reviews, I dig the cast a lot, there's things happening and yet I'm just like, "wow, this is .. something .. I'm going to go do dishes". For a heist movie, that's really bad. But I may be completely alone in this, admittedly. If something amazing happens during the final third of this movie, harass me about this, otherwise, I'm sorry but I tried.

Ishkq in Paris (2013) - This wasn't such a bad movie if it weren't for the fact that it managed to remind me why the film industry is such a rotten business, and it did all of this in a merciful 90 or so minutes. It's a simple enough romcom about two strangers meeting serendipitiously, spending a magical night talking and getting to know each other, only to depart with the intention of never seeing each other again. And yet.. The sound mix is writing cheques (emotional cues and comical effects) the writing of the film can't cash, which makes the film seem like a bad parody of a romantic film. Then there's the absolute tragedy of Preity Zinta, a tragedy too great to cover in such a small amount of space. This movie broke my heart, and I'm still recovering.

Chitrangada (2012) -  I bought this Rituparno Gosh film from Kolkata, as the plot description sounded deliciously ambitious - exploring themes of gender identity, the Chitrangada myth, love and dance all at once. Instead, when I finally sat down to watch this, I found it a slog to get even half-way through. A story about a choreographer (played by the director himself) falling for a drug addicted musician, the film plods along but I didn't connect to the characters, nor did I feel like it was saying anything very substantive. The musician character Partha is just plain unlikable and an obvious mess from the get-go, making the love story difficult to understand or root for. I get the sense that this was an intensely personal film for the late director, but I just felt very detached from it.

Ivan Veramathiri (2013) - I must stress that none of the films I'm covering here are awful, not even Ishqkqkqkq. It's just that thing where a movie fails to hook you in and keep you there for its duration. I saw ads for this Tamil flick while in Chennai and it looked okay enough, and the fact is, it is okay enough - the romance track is a little inane perhaps but Vikram Prabhu is alright and everything else works, yet I just didn't care? Now, a few months separated from the experience, I struggle to remember anything that happened in it, apart from the main points of the plot, and the heroine holding a gold fish in a plastic bag for the hero. I suppose that's something.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A treatise on masala, and Kick.

Masala films are like being sucked into a dream taking place in somebody else's head. To say they contain no logic is misinterpreting their own, magical logic, one that relies less on representing things as grounded and flawed, and more on representing them as perfect, idealised to the point of absurdity. Character types instead of characters, formula instead of story.

Devi (Salman Khan) in Kick is a masala hero, working solely as an avatar for dialogue, an empty cup the fantastical mind of the filmi imagination to pour some character traits into, while the audience forgets the character even has a name. He inspires awe from entrance to the closing shot. "Are wah!" we are to exclaim at his herogiri - the dancing, the fighting, the punchy dialogues, the comedy and the romance. A hero is never wrong. It is the flaw of the heroine to think ill of him, even as well-intentioned as her worries are. It is the flaw of the pseudo-antagonist, the Other Guy, or second male lead, to mistake the hero for his villainous actions as actually a bad guy. The Heroine and the Other Guy will eventually understand their mistakes. The Hero stays unquestioned.

Entertainment is the measure: the mirth I felt when that first overly clever, painfully over-thought and constructed piece of dialogue was spoken. It is a meter shooting up and down as the film progresses. The rating goes from fun to none, but the pace is so quick it's hard to concentrate on one irksome miscoming when the film is serving up ten different things in the next scene. The ride is great, but certain masala measures are questionable, such as the romance. Devi elbows his way into our disgruntled heroine's life without much care about how she feels about it all. Jacqueline Fernandes is quite good at disgruntled, confused and possibly a third expression I can't quite place. Happy, maybe? Is she, does the movie give her any reason to be? She just is. Women, eh?
Randeep Hooda (ah, the bias) as the Other Guy musters up enough life to the screen when the heroine seems too lost to be present or when the hero seems too tired to try too hard. His eyes light up with laughter or turn a steely stern gaze, and he's always the bridesmaid never the bride, and yet he seems to have better chemistry with the hero than the heroine. Women, eh? Why write them with personalities when you can just put all that effort into the second male lead, you know?
As a dessert to this hearty meal, we get the actual villain, Nawazuddin Siddiqui's glorious entrance into the hallowed halls of big budget. Given typical masala hay of semi-sadistic horrid rich guy, he spins gold out of it like a veritable Rumpelstiltzkin, and the results are captivating. This is concentrated, unadulterated villainy - potent, slightly nonsensical and all the better for it. I will probably rewatch the whole film just for these scenes. And the songs, and Randeep Hooda, and the dialogues, and pretty much everything. For all the easily detectable snark in this here review, I really did enjoy this.

Modern masala has many an ailment. It's too calculated and superficial to be anything but fun, cool and sexy. Most often it's an attempt at all three, since the concept of 'cool' dies anew with every Race film. It doesn't move to tears, it doesn't reach the great masses, it's just there. But while it's here, why not enjoy it, and remember it, like one remembers a great night that resulted in a hangover. And if you can't stomach it, go watch some other Nawazuddin Siddiqui films. Everybody wins.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Let's talk about ... Deepika Padukone!

I haven't done an installment in my "Let's talk about" series in ..gosh, quite a while. I figured it might be good time to bring it back up, as I'm trying to give my blog a bit of a revival, and what better way to do it, then discuss a star who's only still at the beginning of her career, and somebody I like, but don't consider myself a fan of. Yet? Maybe?

Deepika Padukone started out as another model pushed out into the world of cinema, forced to learn on the job, and who some people probably didn't think we'd be seeing much of, seven years from her debut. And yet, here we are - she's undeniably gorgeous, but people seek her out as an actress because she's a star, and she can have great, evocative performances. When it comes to on-the-job training, she hasn't floundered all that much - her early films aren't great, but show me a star whose first films are all great picks, great performances and considered classics to this day. That almost never happens.

I think I went with the majority view on Deepika throughout her career. I wasn't in love with her in Om Shanti Om - good dancer, breath-takingly gorgeous, yes, but an amazing actress? I didn't really think so, even though I also thought the role(s) were flimsy as hell. Farah Khan, for all her other virtues, has never written great female characters.

I haven't watched most of Deepika's body of work so far, but based on the films I did see, her steady improvement as an actress sort of snuck up on me. One day she was an actress I didn't really mind one way or the other, and the next I'm watching Break Ke Baad on the plane and thinking, "Damn, this lady is the best thing about this film!". (She was also in another film I watched on a plane journey: Chandi Chowk to China. Uhh. The less said, the better, probably.)

I've missed some key films where the progress probably happened - Love Aaj Kaal has been on my "I'll get to it, whatever, it can wait" list for nearly five years now, and I'm still like, whatever, it can wait. Was she good in Aarakshan? Sadly, would have to watch Aarakshan to find out, which is just not a very appealing prospect. I did see Housefull, but then, that was Housefull, which was not exactly the film for powerhouse performances.

But luckily for me, and for my enjoyment of Miss Padukone's work, I did finally get to Cocktail, where she breathed life into Veronica, a character who was probably much less on the page. And then came 2013 and you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Deepika Padukone blockbuster. I've still yet to see Ram Leela or Chennai Express, but Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani was a gem, and will be remember long after some of those other films will have been forgotten, or at least I hope so. The future looks extraordinairily bright for Deepika, and I honestly couldn't be happier - unlike some people who rely on the value of their looks or their famous last name and rest on their laurels when they arrive onto the silver screen, it seems like she's put in the work, and it's shown up as fast improvement in her performances.

I didn't watch many Koffee with Karan episodes from this latest season, partly because ugh and mostly because argh, but I did see the wonderful episode with Deepika and Priyanka, where they had a great, genuine rapport with one another, and they both seemed like precisely the sort of smart, cool-headed women that gossip rags never want to portray actresses as, because all women are catty divas, right? Priyanka's had her gifts appraised by the industry already, but I think Deepika's best work is just around the corner, hopefully. The more capable, interesting film makers see her as an actress and less as eye candy to put in Race 2 or something, I'm sure we'll see new achievements from this lady.

So, I throw to ball to the audience. What do you think of Deepika? (And please tell me if I'm an idiot for missing out on some of her performances not mentioned here. I will gladly correct such mistakes.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Maha Badmaash. Is. Awesome.

Maha Badmaash is a 1977 masala extravaganza that's kind of bad, but also kind of amazing. When a film begins with some rather unfunny, yet simultaneously ludicrous anti-black racism (with the "African" in question being an Indian actor in blackface) I was ready to hate-watch the damn thing, but then the film proceeds to become a Vinod Khanna & Neetu Singh swimwear catalogue photo shoot, tops that up with the most ridiculous villainous plot I've seen in a while, and gives me Neetu Singh's version of Seeta aur Geeta. First I'm conflicted, then I'm completely charmed.

There's so much goodness in such a dumb wrapping, yet I can't pretend I didn't enjoy all of it.

So - big bad Mogambo, a villain who prefers to remain unseen, comes to Hindustan, and blackmails the local crook Ratan (Vinod Khanna) into his nefarious plans, with the help of Pinky (Neetu Singh), who's also being forced into a life of crime because her dad is being held hostage by Mogambo. Unbeknownst to Ratan, however, there is another plot happening - Pinky gets replaced by her twin Seema in contact lenses, all to take down Mogambo once and for all.

Like Gaddaar, this was initially recommended to me by Beth, and based on some other things I read about online I thought this movie would be a pretty dumb masala flick, which it certainly is, but hot damn how it makes up for the lack of wit and complexity with gallons upon gallons of pure fun. Admittedly, you may have to be biased towards the two leads to be able to relish in the fun. Vinod is a blast here, but Neetu particularly, from the flirty and brash Pinky to the (literally) blue-eyed Seema. It's not a very subtle performance, but it's also not as over-the-top as I expected. 

Plus her chemistry with Vinod, as either character, is so precious.

And with gun-wielding hijinks, too? What more could you hope for? Gratuitous swimwear?

Got you covered right there, as well.

Of course, there is that all-important context for everything - a cheeseball plot in which they train for the big mission by having Ratan stay underwater for ridiculous amounts of time, and then for him to stay in ice-cold temperatures for another long stretch of time. Because mission. The ice training in particular was special. The choice to just cut between the trainers' shocked faces as various meters are going up or down or whatever, meters, who cares, made for a truly memorable scene.

Meters! Oh my god!

And then there's Mogambo's lair, which is a truly futuristic piece of set design. Doktor Kaligari called, you know, just to say hi.

There are a number of other awesome things, such as: 

1. Neetu's cuteness.

2. The fight choreographer pulling out all the damn stops in the final fight sequence. Head-scissors take-down!

3. Vinod dealing with it.

4. Seriously, though, the swimwear...

5. Everything about this screenshot.

6. Twin goodness. Better yet, twin goodness with Neetu Singh! 

Also, as sillydumb as this movie is, the female characters are kind of on fire here. Besides Neetu, there is a sort of airheaded, yet kind of perceptive Reena (Bindu), whose dad owns the hotel they're cooped up in throughout most of the movie. She is the only person who figures out the twin confusion before anybody else. Then there's this lady:

..whose actress name or character name I can't find or remember. She works for the good guys and is constantly aiding Seema in their plans to take down Mogambo. It's a delight.

There isn't really all that much to say about Maha Badmaash in terms of plot or characters, because it's all pretty flimsy. Yet there's a certain sort of B-movie style charm to all the proceedings, the funky 70's sets and music and style, the undenial chemistry between the leads, the typical tropes (family lost and found for the twin sisters), the gross baddies and all the rest of it.  Or maybe I'm just really deeply biased towards Vinod & Neetu cuteness.

It could very well be just that.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Gaddaar - if you find it, grab it.

Around two years ago, me and Beth compared our Vinod Khanna notes, and she recommended some films I hadn't yet seen while I recommended some films of his that she hadn't got to yet. In that conversation, Beth recommended the film Gaddaar from 1973 (here is her write-up of it), and has been on my "to see" list ever since. However, in typical Vinod Khanna bad luck, one of his better 70's films seemed to be universally, perpetually unavailable, and underappreciated. I did my regular searches on the online stores and youtubes of the world wide web, and always, always came up empty. In India, I scrutinized every G-section of a DVD shop. Nothing. Ever.

It's not like being a Vinod Khanna fan is easy without the hunt for underappreciated gem films of his being this arduous. The man only had about a decade of solid stardom before he regrettably retrieved from the material world, only to return when Hindi cinema was at its creatively crappiest. If you have nostalgia for the action flicks of the late 80's and early 90's, and dig that particular Vinod Khanna, more power to you, but I personally can't pretend that those performances have even a quarter of the charm his 70's filmography does. It's tired plots and tired performances, and thus my first question when hearing about a Vinod Khanna film isn't "is it good?" but rather, "when was it released?". So hearing about Gaddaar, an early 70's film, and seeing the screen caps and the high recommendations, I had to have it, and it killed me that it was nowhere to be found, despite my best efforts.

Eventually, though, I found Gaddaar (with a little, okay, a lot of help from Carla), or it found me - and I honestly couldn't be happier about the fact.

The film begins with BK (Pran) assembling his team of crooks for a grand heist (including Iftekhar, Ranjeet, Manmohan and Madan Puri). The heist goes well with only the minor hitch of BK being shot, leading him to give the loot of Kanhaya (Madan Puri), and agreeing to meet him later, along with the rest of the gang. As luck would have it, however, Kanhaya betrays the group and is nowhere to be found. Enter a small-time crook Raja (Vinod Khanna), who blackmails his way into the group, and they set off to search for Kanhaya.

The real triumph of the story is that as the search winds down, Gaddaar becomes less of a crime film and more a drama thriller between the the thieves, and the bystanders who are forced to get involved. It gives these character actors more to do than they otherwise get to in your average masala flick, where the focus is so much on the hero, and crooks are usually merely just that. Here, their relations with one another form the backbone of the film, and make for a gripping watch, particularly as the latter half of the film is spent in one particular setting.

It's just good fun, aided by solid writing and fantastic acting. The frustration that builds up between our central antagonists in the isolated Himachal Pradesh cabin flares up every now and then, and it is these moments that allow the drama to escalate further and further. It's cabin fever, further exaggerated by the desperate circumstances.

And then there's Vinod.

Raja is the type of character Vinod Khanna seemed to play a lot of in the 1970's. He's a rogue, sure, but he's charming, and even when he has his particularly cruel moments, he seems to have a beating heart and a humane side, too. Sometimes there's a twist in store, sometimes there isn't. Yet the character works, particularly in this setting, because he's surrounded by other crooks of varying shades - some noble, some horrible, some cruel, some cowardly.

Also: he's got swag up to his shiny, perfect hair-do. Pure swag.

It always bugs me to recommend a film I know you'll probably have at least half the trouble finding as I did, but regardless, that I must do. It's a great film to check out if you're not quite with the over-the-top traits of a typical 1970's masala, but still would like to see the style and some of the actors (because let's face it, 70's Pran, 70's Iftekhar and Ranjeet in general are all joys to witness). It's a nice change of pace in many ways, and without a doubt one of the most underrated Hindi films of the 1970's.

I wonder if Sriram Raghavan was inspired by this film to formulate his Johnny Gaddaar (2007) around a similar (if very differently actualised) plot devise. It's a more available film that is also relatively underrated, in part because Neil Nitin Mukesh's career never took off. There are some good performances in it  - Dharmendra, Zakir Hussain and Vinay Pathak all stood out to me - and while I should probably give it a rewatch before singing its praises so loudly, I would be willing to bet it references this film in one way or another. It's another film where you know who betrayed who, but the dramatic tension in Johnny Gaddaar comes from the rest of the gang slowly putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


If there's a fast-emerging genre of films of Indian women re-gaining their self-esteem by embracing life and themselves while traveling abroad, it's a development I can't really dislike. English Vinglish was charming, and its vibrant little sister in spirit, Queen is another fantastically enjoyable film. In essence there is nothing new about travel films with empowerment messages of this kind, but sometimes a formula works not due to its presence, but its grounded, passionate application. This is a film where you love a character so much, you're entirely with her on this ride, busy making discoveries alongside her.

Rani (Kangna Raut), a sweet Delhi girl, gets dumped by her fiance Vijay (Rajkummar Rao) a day before her wedding. After wallowing in the situation, Rani decides to go on their honeymoon alone despite everything - to take a trip to Paris and Amsterdam alone. At first, she's understandably alienated in the foreign city, but soon befriends Vijaylaxmi (Lisa Haydon), a vivacious, party-hard somewhat-single mother. Encouraged by the new friendship, Rani continues her journey in Amsterdam. (And as I loved this film so much, the review will contain spoilers. Watch it, come back to this review. I wouldn't want to ruin anything for you.)

Kangna Raut, who's previously done good work in not-so-great films, really shines as Rani. The character is quite odd, but in a perfectly every-day manner. Her "very good" sense of humor finds a new audience in her foreign friends, even though they don't quite seem to understand it, either. They still like Rani, however, just as I as the viewer like her. From the first scene, when we hear her excited but fretting inner monologue during the beginning of the wedding celebrations, she becomes somebody to truly root for.

The portrayal of Rani's new-found international friends is very perceptive, as it captures the way that lack of a full fluency in a common language doesn't necessarily stop two human beings from fully bonding with one another. You can make real friends while traveling, even if they will be different from the ones you have back at home, but the film captures this, too. You get a sense that these people will meet again, after years, and catch up and get along just the same as they did when travelling together - much like I've done with friends I've met during travel.

I feel like I could possibly have some quibbles about this film, but there's a part of me that knows the world it inhabits so well, the freedom of travel and the enjoyment of embracing new parts of yourself while abroad, that it becomes difficult to really argue for those minor criticisms. Lisa Haydon's character, for example, certainly contains archetypes, but because the archetypes are multiple - the booze-drinking, smoking, sexually active Western woman, the mixed ethnicity bombshell, yes, but also working mother, caring friend, cheesy joke maker - the combination becomes refreshing.

The success in writing and casting Rani's other new friends is also worth noting. They're not characters with incredible depth, but as they play second-fiddle to Rani's self-discovery, we also learn about their own journeys and struggles and inner worlds. You get a sense that they don't just exist in the world or in this particular story for her benefit. This allows the friendships to feel real, not just between them and Rani, but between the group of the three guys on their own. It's also a sigh of relief - maybe, just maybe, the days of cringe-worthy international casting in Indian films are beginning to end.

As so often happens with these "Indian abroad" films, the homeland is never too far away. Vijay, the asshole former fiance, suddenly decides he likes this Rani abroad and pursues her, just as the audience decides we really don't like him. The flashback scenes are great in demonstrating how we are sometimes held back by those claiming to do it for our own benefit, and because they care for us, love us even. Rani insults an Italian chef by requesting more spice into her dish, and there is the obligatory "Indian cooking wins over white people" scene. Even the sex worker Roxette turns out to be just a hard-working Indian girl, providing for her large family.

The film is particularly of interest to me, because I'm about to visit Amsterdam, mostly to hang out and enjoy the great city, but also to meet up with friends who I haven't seen in a long while. Besides those personal reasons, there are a number of other things I should probably mention. The soundtrack fits the film like a glove, and adds to it, particularly in the first scenes where Rani crashes out of her element by drinking and partying with Vijaylaxmi. The direction is tight, and even though the cinematography revels in the beauty of Paris and Amsterdam as cities, the focus never stops being about Rani, and the people she meets during her travels. A city, after all, is just a city. The memories you make in it, the people you travel with, those will stick with you. Queen is an undeniable gem, and particularly great for Kangna Raut, who I think has always landed in films where her effort has risen above the actual script. This will hopefully not only inspire more film makers to write roles as meaty as Rani's here, but also consider Kangna in various, great projects.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom - wait, what happened?

Bugs, Saras and Bhaji have a problem - their friend, Prem, fell over while playing cricket the day before his wedding, and as result of a concussion, now fails to recall events that happened up to a year ago. Since Prem shows no signs of having a miraculous recovery, the three friends are forced to keep up the charade throughout his wedding day, making sure the marriage goes through, even when Prem fails to recall his bride, much less what happened six minutes ago.

I have to confess I was more charmed by Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (A few pages missing in between, 2012) than I actually enjoyed the experience of watching it. The low-fi aesthetic demonstrates the smaller budget, and in some ways it's very clear that this is the first directorial venture of Balaji Tharaneetharan, who found his story from actual events that happened to his friend (the film's cinematographer, C. Prem Kumar). This is, in many ways, the little film that could, and I really like that about it - a small budget venture that became a cult classic.

With that said, I'm not sure most of the comedy carried over through the translation process. The conceit of the film is to be repetitive - Prem repeats certain things as he instantly forgets what he said, or what has been told to him, and it can be hard to make the same lines gain meaning or comedy through repetition. At times, there's a scene where they succeed in this, and the situational comedy is fantastic because of it - mostly on the latter half of the film. But for the most part, the repetitiveness of both the dialogue and the reaction shots can get a bit dull, and I wonder whether this is where being a native Tamil speaker would've helped. The only subtitles I could find, in a perfect demonstration of how unavailable Tamil films can be to outsiders, were fan-made, but as such, they weren't exactly flawless.

I'm forced to give this a very lukewarm recommendation. I didn't dislike it, but I fear the praise I'd read for it online was so high, it failed to meet it. Still, I'm very happy that alongside bombastic big budget films, Tamil cinema can also produce these smaller, indie gems.