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. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Soodhu Kavvum - just watch it. Watch it now.

We can only make farcical cinema, as far as politics is considered because politics is farce in our country. Either we can make farce or we can make (it) very dark because there is no middle road.  - Vishal Bhardwaj, TBIP interview
Dark comedies as a genre rely on the audience's ability to laugh at the very things in society that shouldn't make us laugh in the first place, be it death or the immorality of man, or the failure of societal institutions to do what they're supposed to. At times, the label seems to get applied to films that aren't quite as funny as they're perhaps meant to be, but where they fail in comedy, they succeed in some semblance of social commentary, and so the label "dark comedy" gets stamped on them, almost as a cop-out. At its best, though, the genre is genuinely funny, and the comedy emerges from the commentary itself.

Soodhu Kavvum ("Evil engulfs", though according to my DVD, "deceit is addictive") is such a film, a 2013 Tamil comedy that is as side-splittingly funny as it is perceptive about society and morals in society. The film came with high recommendations, but I luckily hadn't heard much about the plot itself, so I could discover every aspect of the movie at its own pace. And it is so good.

The story follows three young losers (Ashok Selvan, Bobby Simha and Ramesh Thilak, pictured above) who live and fail to work in Chennai, until the day they accidentally come upon Das (Vijay Sethupathi), a middle-aged guy with a flourishing career in mid-level kidnapping and extortion and an imaginary girlfriend named Shalu (Sanchita Shetty), who only he himself can see or hear. Two and eventually all three of the guys join this budding entrepreneurial venture, and things are going well, until they decide to chase a bigger payday by kidnapping the wastrel son (Karunakaran) of a morally upright minister.

The script is amazingly funny, and the type of comedy that magically carries over to the decent English subtitle translations in a way that made me laugh out loud constantly. There is an interesting central idea to the film that makes everything fall together in a splendid way - everybody in this film is a crook, apart from the villain, and it is weirdly liberating to laugh at the weird ways in which the world favours the morally loose, corrupt or just plain lazy. The first scene in which we meet Arumai, the minister's son, is one such scene. This guy is an absolute waste of space, so naturally, in this world, he triumphs.

I mean, just look at him. Ugh, go away. (Seriously, though, great performance by Karunakaran.)

Shalu, the sole female character, is of course imaginary, in an (I hope) intentional bit of meta-commentary for Tamil films, where women tend to be eye candy, rather than important characters. Das doesn't treat her particularly well, and while I could find this disturbing in a misogynist manner (you imagined yourself a girlfriend you don't even like? what?), I mostly just find it incredibly hilarious. And the chemistry between them is about what you could hope for, between a weird, semi-drunkard man and his imaginary girlfriend.

"Can we keep him?" she asks, about the child they've just kidnapped. I'm weak with laughter, I love it.

The kidnapping scenes each have so much potential to be genuinely dark and unfunny, and yet they all turn out so comical that they're a delight. Das' rules for humanitarian kidnappings, not extorting big sums but just enough that the one being extorted can afford to pay rent next month, lends the whole thing such an oddball comedic vibe, that it's hard to find them off-putting.

The film was also a constant source of discoveries when it came to the cast, as well. Bobby Simha, who I may have seen before, was incredibly effective, particularly in a scene where he is being appraised as a future film hero by a rowdy who's turned to movie making.

Witness, the next Suriya.

Then there's Vijay Sethupathi, who plays Das.


I mean, uhh, he's okay I guess.

That aside, it's just really great to see a Tamil movie that gets it right in every way. It's been a while since that has happened, and as I don't get to see all that many Tamil films, due to scarce availability and lack of subtitles on a lot of DVDs, it's always a joy to find a great film I immediately fall in love with, that introduces me to a whole bunch of new talent, that has a joyous soundtrack, and a fantastic script that is definitely rooted in Indian/Tamil society but also translates to a foreigner such as myself in an effortless manner. Props to the subtitle staff at AP/Ayngaran Anak, who produced the DVD.

And if this sounded at all like your thing, the dark comedy, the farce and the morally ambiguous protagonists, the imaginary heroine and all the rest of it, do give it a go. I mean the film, not kidnapping.

Sorry, "kednaping", of course. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Hasee Toh Phasee: overcomplicating a good thing.

My first reaction to Parineeti Chopra's character in Hasee Toh Phasee was enthusiastic - to use the cliche, it was something new, something different, and something that would allow her to further stretch her already great acting abilities. But then, the more I thought about, and considered the movie itself, the more this enthusiasm turned into a pensive frown. Here's the thing: what would this film be, if we placed a moratorium, a blanket ban on quirky mentally ill characters, quirky mentally ill super-genius characters, and most of all, slightly gimmicky performances surrounding them?

A lot of films, both Hollywood, Bollywood and elsewhere in the world, would be robbed of their central conceit. Hell, gimmicks are a significant part of Indian films, and you wouldn't get me to agree to this ban if it meant no Dhoom 3, or no Anniyan, or no Paa in the world, I just wouldn't allow it. And yet, when it comes to Hasee Toh Phasee, a movie that attempts at a frothy but heartfelt romantic comedy, I wonder if such a ban might be wise in the first place.

The story is simple: Nikhil (Sidharth Malhotra) is about to marry Karishma, despite all signs pointing to this being a bad idea. He discovers that a girl he met and bonded with shortly before meeting Karishma, Meeta (Parineeti Chopra), is in fact Karishma's sister, disowned by the family for various reasons. Now Meeta is back for the wedding, and Karishma asks Nikhil to make sure she's not seen by her side of the family, and thus wacky hijinks and an eventual budding romance ensue.

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to Meeta's character, her mysterious past, her strange mannerisms, her super-genius rattling off of factoids in fast English and her pill-popping antics. At first I was merely intrigued, but the further along the film went, the more I wondered whether less would be more when it came to this character. I'm sure, as ever, everything to do with her was properly and meticulously researched (isn't it always?), but something about this hodgepodge of symptoms and quirks, no matter how medically accurate, was kind of a mess.

It doesn't particularly help that the movie relies on this character to really work, so when Parineeti Chopra's natural charm doesn't quite manage to come through in this performance, I wasn't quite as engaged with the movie as I was hoping to be. The second lead, Sidharth Malhotra, does okay, but he's no acting or charisma powerhouse at this point in his career, and so the resulting romance doesn't quite feel as touching as it might with a better cast or a less messy script.

However, if it works for you, it works, and this becomes a passable cutesy romcom with heart at the core of it. Some of the songs are great, while others are cringeworthy. I still wish, being a fan of Parineeti's, that they would've scaled back on the character a bit: while I appreciate the something new in the character, especially as female protagonists can be occasionally bland in terms of characterisation, there may have been some pieces missing, both in the scripting of the character and the performance. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Filmi year 2013 - better late than never, I guess?

2013 was kind of a very strange year for me, in terms of following Indian cinema. I started the year in a frenzy, watching and enjoying a lot of films, then the interest fizzling, but keeping up with films somewhat, and managing to catch a fair few films at a festival in early autumn. Most of the year was spent planning for the eventual epic India trip, that would commence in December and go through to mid-January, when I would finally return home, happy and sated, with tons of movies with me. 

There are notable exceptions to the 2013 films I saw - I couldn't find the time, effort or interest to catch Chennai Express, the big SRK blockbuster. I saw bits of it on TV in India, but Indian TV drove me up the walls with the commercial breaks, so I just couldn't focus on it. I think I saw most films, though, most films that I intended to see, anyway. 

So, here's my takeaway from last year.

Why The Hell Did I Do This To Myself Film of the Year: Race 2

We all have regrets, and I'm surprised watching Race 2 wasn't followed by a year-long chronic hangover in which everything and anything would be a plot twist and nothing would make any goddamn sense. But thankfully, the end result of watching Race 2 is merely that you've wasted your time watching Race 2. If your life is irrevocably ruined afterwards, that's on you. 

Disappointment of the Year: Go Goa Gone

Gosh, oh gosh. I so wanted to like you, movie. Why didn't you let me

I'm A Special Snowflake For Getting to See This Gem of the Year: Monsoon Shootout

It's an interesting little indie flavored flick, it's got Nawazuddin Siddiqui (ie perfection), it's just a really intriguing watch and I want everybody to see and I hate festival slow-burn releases, except when I don't, because I got to see this ahead of most other people. But when it hits theaters, do check it out, I implore you. 

Best Used Formula of the Year: AnyBody Can Dance

All the delightful underdog team tropes are in use here, and it just works so well. This was my delight of the year, and I can't wait to rewatch it once more.

The Most Puzzling Film of the Year: Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola 

I loved it. It was weird. It was gorgeous. It was ..pink water buffaloes? I don't know what to make of this movie, but I do know I own the damn thing on DVD, so I suppose I'll have to give it another look. There was so much good, and such good satire amidst all the strangeness, but I don't know if Matru is, at the end of the day, just an okay oddball movie, or a splendid underappreciated masterpiece.

The Biggest Causes of Worry: the various struggles of the young generation

I'm talking questionable movie picks (I know they can't all be winners but I'd want to see Parineeti Chopra in something good, and Shuddh Desi Romance was not it), weird appearance changes (Anushka Sharma's face) and careers generally headed towards the toilet (Abhay Deol, Imran Khan). I like some of these people. I may not love all of them, but I do wish them all the best, and it saddens me to see these young stars take significant missteps. Don't Saif Ali Khan your career, guys, let's pull it together.

A Thing That Happened That I Didn't Think I Could Type In 2014: Karan Johar directed a kiss scene between two men

No, seriously, I did not think that would happen. As for the short film itself, well, I like Karan Johar sometimes, flaws and all. And believe me, there were flaws. (I also need to rewatch Bombay Talkies, I don't believe I ever reviewed it in full.)

The Top Five Most Epic Film Experiences I Had in India (because I must gloat)
  1. DDLJ at Maratha Mandir. Enough said.
  2. Sholay 3D in Juhu, amongst people who loved it and who could quote it by heart. I am the luckiest son of a gun.
  3. Dhoom 3. Because Dhoom 3. And also, Dhoom 3, which stars Aamir Khan and Aamir Khan, and I am happy that was a thing that was. 
  4. The Tamil film Kumki, viewed at night, in a village setting. Magical.
  5. Dancing so enthusiastically to Badtameez Dil from Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani at a Chennai New Year's Eve event that some random folks came to tell me I rock out harder to Bollywood music than most Indians. I was flattered, but it was only because I never get to dance to Bollywood music outside my bedroom that I was so into it. That, and...

My Film of the Year: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

Because as much as I appreciated other films last year, YJHD was the only one that hit home on all fronts - it was funny, charming, had a cute romance, a rocking soundtrack, a beautiful depiction of female friendship and inspired me to think about some of my choices in life. For a guy I am not a fan of, Ranbir Kapoor keeps performing in a manner that is hard not to like, and Deepika Padukone continues to impress. It's a movie I saw, and then went back to, and have gone back to twice or three times after first seeing it. I love it. I just love it. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Highway, and a journey home.

Sometimes being out of the loop, not following every promo and trailer, can be so beneficial for a film aficionado. I didn't expect Imtiaz Ali's Highway to be much more than maybe a strange, Stockholm syndrome inspired kidnapper-kidnappee romance. The pairing of Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda seemed strange, and considering her last performance that I saw was the wooden, unbearable turn in Student of the Year, I wasn't precisely hopeful that she actually had considerable acting chops. While every shitty Bhatt movie in Randeep Hooda's oeuvre is warmly embraced by such fans as myself, it's safe to say he's not universally appreciated. Imtiaz Ali is not infallible, either, and it's been in the past few years that his films and scripts have been particularly critisised for the way they portray female protagonists.

Yet, Highway manages to be a very human picture that gives its downtrodden heroine a lot of agency in a difficult situation, and thus allows Alia Bhatt to show what she can do, when acting outside Karan Johar's vapid female stereotypes. Aided by Ali's best script in a long while, this ends up being less of a kidnapping romance and more a film about two damaged people, trying to re-discover what their home in the world might be. It is, in a world, beautiful.

The story reveals all this in a very gradual way, and is all the better for it. Due to that, however, I'm forced to discuss some spoilers, so before the jump, I'll just say this: I loved this movie. It's maybe my favourite Imtiaz Ali picture right after Jab We Met, even if the two deal in two very different genres, obviously. I'll probably have to rewatch it to see how I properly rate it among my favourites, but thus far, it's stayed with me, it certainly impressed me, and I can't think of too many bad things to say about. I'd certainly recommend it.

Spoilers after cut.

The Lunchbox and the argument for self-reflection.

The pointlessness of consumption starts to hit home when the DVDs you've hauled from half-way across the globe gather dust as you're so preoccupied with life and other interests that you've got. Believe you me, I don't mean to abandon Indian movies without much warning every 18 months or so - it just happens. And then I rush back in, flushed with new-found excitement. The love is always there, in a way, even when the blog is dead and the DVD player abandoned. I just get so tired, tired with the mediocrity, tired with the dullness of the Bengali art picture I'm forcing myself to sit through just because, tired of waiting for DVDs to come out, tired of the vapid jokes made on Koffee with Karan. So I leave, and then I come back.

I should have, of course, returned much earlier, as the brilliant Dabba (or The Lunchbox, as it's so widely known internationally now) arrived in Finnish cinemas a little over a month ago. I always wanted to see it, and I don't even feel like the film suffered from praise overload. It is a darling film, full of little flavors and notes to pick up on, well-directed and written, and with captivating performances and gentle comedic touches. It's got Irrfan Khan, ambassador of Indian acting to the western world, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the new can-do-no-wrong actor, and Nimrat Kaur, a shockingly fantastic newer find.

It's hard to disagree that this should've been India's Oscar hopeful, as even if you find the film bland and overrated, its gentle love story, culture-specific setting (the dabbawallahs' uncharacteristic mistake setting the scene for the exchange of letters), its feel-good vibes and lack of songs included, would have made it the perfect film for that particular audience. Even a month after its initial release, the screening on an early evening was weirdly full - this film is catching considerable word of mouth even in my northern corner of the globe, and I have no doubt Oscar buzz would've helped this along further. But just as well, and I'm happy it's getting such wide international recognition, even without being pitched to the Academy.

So it's a good film, and a joy to sit through, but what I found most important about the film was that it really made me reflect on life. As most good love stories, the one in Dabba is ultimately about something greater than the connection between two people. Saajan (Irrfan) and Ila (Nimrat Kaur) are tiptoeing into a connection with their exchanged messages, and as with any two unhappy people who connect over their unhappiness, their exchanges soon become about their lives itself - what they want, what they don't want, and what they can expect from the future. It's only natural that the viewer also finds themselves asking similar questions - especially if they're relatively young, or with their life in flux, or going through a rough time, or even if they're older, like Saajan, and looking back on their past experiences.

I found myself wondering all of these things, and then arguing with myself - maybe these questions aren't really as tough as one might, in their bourgeois angst, think. After all, endless pondering about life and ourselves, our direction or our happiness, can put a person in a state of utter confusion, that can be only medicated by being marketed self-help in form of books and life style magazines and co-opted philosophies. The Lunchbox seems to also posit that this self-reflection can be rather middle class. Do the dabbawallahs themselves ponder these things? Maybe, but maybe they move on quicker than some of us. There is, in essence, much common sense in the character of Shaikh (Siddiqui), whose description of an ordinary day, full of work but also of little joys, really hit home for me. In a complicated world, simplicity can be the greatest treasure of all, even as I roll my eyes at what a cliché that sounds like. Pessimism remains my affliction.

Such is the beauty of cinema, and of all stories, really. They inspire us to see beyond what is just on the page, and consider ourselves in reflection to the characters. It's not that a film has to be deep to inspire such thoughts, it merely has to be compelling and believable as a story. And while I can't say The Lunchbox became an instant all-time favourite, I appreciate it because it certainly inspired me in many ways, and that's so much more than most films manage to do.