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.