Thursday, August 15, 2013

Devdas and its near-twin, Parineeta

Here's what happened: I watched Devdas (Bhansali's version), and then a little while later I watched Parineeta. And I had a slight sense of deja vu. The stylistic feel of the movies was different (I really don't think anyone is quite like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, love him or loathe him), but there were definite echos as far as story goes. Turns out both movies are adaptions of novels by the same writer, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. I wouldn't judge an author's entire set of works by only two, but these two certainly dealt in similar characters and situations. Both featured childhood next-door neighbors and friends who grow up together and in love with each other, and the complications brought by the differing social statuses of their families.

Film: Devdas
Year: 2002
Stars: Aishwarya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit
Directed by: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
How I watched it: On DVD delivered by Netflix
Short answer to "Did I like it?": Yes. With an exclamation point. Yes!

I was, quite simply, mesmerized by this film. I have read complaints about it before and since watching it, and I can definitely see how the opulent sets and the heightened tone could be not to everyone's tastes, but it worked beautifully for me. (One peeve--people who complain that it was "unrealistic." That's like attending the opera and harping on how it's so unrealistic to think people would sing everything to each other, and what's with the horned hats? Bhansali doesn't seem to go in for realism. It's a choice, not a blunder.)

Every frame is shot with the maximum aesthetic effect in mind. The music is delicious and the dancing is simply stunning. Aishwarya and Madhuri are the best I've ever seen them, and SRK is made for the over-the-top melodrama that Bhansali relishes, but he's not obnoxiously frenetic here. The story is sad, but a very cathartic sad, a sad that feels like tears over beautiful poetry.

If you like beauty and spectacle in your Bollywood, this is a must-watch. And, in case it wasn't clear, well, it has Aishwarya Rai AND Madhuri Dixit DANCING. Even together, once.

* * * * *

Film: Parineeta
Year: 2005
Stars: Vidya Balan, Saif Ali Khan, Sanjay Dutt
Directed by: Pradeep Sarkar
How I watched it: On DVD delivered by Netflix
Short answer to "Did I like it?": Yes. Yes, I did.

I stayed up too late watching this movie. Apparently, it is dangerous to assume I will be able to turn off the movie at intermission and wait until the next day. It didn't happen. I was having too much fun staring at Vidya being all beautiful and riveting and Saif being all intense and brooding and Sanjay Dutt being all gentle and noble.

There are several similarities to Devdas here, but the music and dancing were far, far inferior. (Was there any dancing? Now I can't really recall. There was an interesting and fun item number by Rekha, sung to the tune of Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." No, really.) However, there is much less altered reality and general over-the-top-ness, if that sort of thing bothers you (although the climax does have more than a touch of melodrama.) Also, this one has

a happy ending. Sort of. Depending on whether you think Saif's character is basically a decent guy who just needed to get out from under his father's thumb and wake up to what was going on, or whether you think he is mostly a controlling and abusive whiner. I could go either way by the time the film wound to its close, so while I enjoyed it, the vacillating sense of whether or not I was happy with the outcome kept it from being a clear winner. Not that it really could have been any other way, as it turned out, but still.

I did absolutely love Vidya Balan in this. She was fabulous and flawless. I also loved her character, who could be sometimes strong and sometimes weak, firm as well as needy, clear-headed except when absolutely foolishly driven by emotion. You know, a complex, real human being.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa

I watched Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (The Mother of 1084), which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi in 1998.

It wins an award from me, too. The Queuing Up Bollywood Award for the Most Depressing Hindi Film Watched Thus Far. Congratulations!

This is not a small thing. I have watched quite a few depressing Hindi films. This is by far the most unrelenting, although it does end on an uplifting and hopeful note, mingled with the resonance of another onscreen tragedy. It is unique, however, in being completely song, dance, and subplot-free.

And this is not to say that the movie isn't good. It is a well-made, atmospheric film. The performances throughout are excellent. Apparently, this was Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan's comeback film after 18 years off the screen, and I admire the very quiet fire of her performance.

This is the first film I have seen that centers about the Naxalite movement, something which a year or two ago I had never even heard of. "Naxalite" is a general term for militant communist groups in India, groups that mainly derive their philosophy from Mao, and their name from the town Naxalbari, where the Communist Party of India was involved in a violent uprising. The impression that I get is that there are many different groups with a great deal of variation in practices and aims that are lumped under this term "Naxalite." The Naxalites in this film are idealistic young men dreaming of a more egalitarian future for their country, not unlike the young revolutionaries in Les Misérables, actually.

I have read that some Naxalites resort to or even depend on violence to promote their aims, but in this film the idealistic Naxalite youths are the ones subjected to violence by those who disapprove of their aims, including the police.

The film is set in the 1970s, and opens with Jaya's character, Sujata, being summoned to identify the body of her son, Brati. Her husband (played by Anupam Kher) and her other son immediately go into cover-up mode, alerting the audience that there is something other than a simple crime involved here, and Sujata must go to the police morgue alone. She hadn't had any idea what her son was involved in, and is despondent and confused, which the viewer is also. The viewer trails behind her for the rest of the film as she decides to find out just what happened.

I am always fascinated by how nice communism sounds as a philosophy. There is a flashback scene where Sujata is realizing there were hints of what was going on that she didn't pick up on. In this scene, Brati is arguing with his father, who asks him why he is hanging out with these disreputable people when he comes from a fine, well-to-do family. Brati proudly replies that he wants his friends to be able to have what he has, asserting that they are "no less" than he. His father has no reply. It sounds lovely, doesn't it? And this film has a bit of a feel of wondering why this lovely sounding philosophy inspires such hatred, and comes to such violence and grief.

I do feel that this is one film I did not entirely understand. There was so much in it for which I simply don't have the background required to get all of the implications. I don't know enough about Naxalites, about what they've done and what has been done to them, about politics in India in the 1970s, about how Indians feel about where India is now and how that relates to earlier policies. But I could feel this mother's pain, and her confusion about why her son came to the end he did, and her slow realization that there are people around her suffering and struggling that she hadn't really notice before, and that her son had wanted something better.

One thing I found absolutely beautiful was the portrayal of how Sujata comes into her own, stops being under her husband's thumb, and finds a purpose in her grief. I also found it interesting that, in the not entirely bleak ending I alluded to, her husband has also changed as a character, for the better, in response. The film seems to be making a hopeful statement that the leaders of a country might change for the better when their citizens decide to make a stand for what they believe in. As I said, it's a depressing film, but not without hope.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Somewhat Soporific Saawariya

Saawariya is a film by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who also did one of my favorites, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Saawariya is a dream-like, fantasy film set in an entirely fabricated world, and it has Bhansali's stamp of visual artistry on it.

There is a lot of beauty in this movie. However, sometimes perhaps Bhansali forgot the difference between creating a painting, or a series of paintings, and making a movie. In places Saawariya was so slow it was like watching a painting dry, and in other places the threads of the story frayed until it entirely ceased to make sense.

Saawariya is set in a make-believe world, in a city that is not any real city, just a beautiful backdrop for the story. Ranbir Kapoor plays Raj, who falls in love with the beautiful Sakina (Sonam Kapoor) who is pining for her own heart's desire to return to her (her absent love is played by Salman Khan, in a bit of a cameo here). Raj meets Sakina walking through the city and grows obsessed with her. She first wants nothing to do with him, then befriends him, but tells him she is waiting for the man she loves to come back. But he is sure, because his feelings for her are so strong, that she belongs with him. All that remains is to convince her, right?

There is also a small role here for Rani Mukerji, who performs the best dance number in the movie. (Yay Rani!)

There are some similarities between this movie and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but I much prefer HDDCS. Now, HDDCS is not a perfect movie by any means. It is filled with melodrama and suffers from some poor directing choices in places. But it is undeniably alive, and so heartfelt, whereas Saawariya feels distant and a little cold. I didn't feel I really knew any of the people in the movie by the time I got to the end of it. Nor did I really care about them or the choices they ultimately made. This is a sharp contrast to my reaction to HDDCS, which I was very invested in. Saawariya can also be, quite frankly, very dull in places. There is a lot of the young couple wandering slowly around the beautiful set, talking, but not getting anywhere with it.

But I did discover something interesting when I watched Saawariya. I discovered that I don't much care for Ranbir Kapoor, at least when he performs in an exuberant or quirky role (I did like him very much in Rocket Singh, Salesman of the Year, but that was a very low-key performance). Which goes a long way toward explaining why I couldn't get into Barfi, in addition to what I mentioned in my post about it. He is very talented and performs very well, which is why I didn't immediately think it was his performance putting me off at all, but now having seen both Barfi and Saawariya it clicked for me: he sells it, but I don't like what he's selling. When he tries to turn on the charm, it turns me right off. My working theory is that he's too technical. He is a Kapoor, after all, part of that powerful Bollywood dynasty, and has been steeped in it his entire life, no doubt. He knows exactly what he's doing. He is a fine-tuned Bollywood-performance instrument. But I don't feel any heart behind it.

Well, maybe I'll see something later that will change my mind!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya vs. Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

I watched Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya, which stars Genelia D'Souza and Ritesh Deshmukh, and which is pretty uncomplicated and sweet. It's a fun, feel-good (probably one-time) watch, and the only real complaint I have is that the music could have been better.

The inciting incident of the film unfolds thusly: Viren is working as a cab driver, saving money to start a business of his own someday. One day he comes to work to find that his boss has sold all the cabs, which is a problem for him, because he was storing all his hard-earned money in his cab. He gets drunk and later comes back with a gun, demanding his boss reimburse the lost money. It so happens that his drunken tirade is interrupting a meeting in which his boss is arranging the marriage of his daughter, Mini, who is not happy with the match her father has picked out. Being a spunky sort, and a skilled hand with firearms, Mini forces Viren to drive off with her, pretending that she is being kidnapped. The pair strike a deal in which they plan to split the ransom money Mini's father pays for her, so that he'll get his money back and she'll have the funds to go off and live her life the way she wants to.

It's a pretty implausible story line, but this is not the type of movie to worry overmuch about such trivialities. And it basically works, mainly because the two leads play so well together. Genelia D'Souza is animated and energetic, and I found her completely adorable. Ritesh Deshmukh also gives a heartfelt performance, not seeming to mind that a good percentage of the time he is playing the straight man to Genelia's spunky quirkiness.

It is a harmless, fluffy movie and fun to watch. And it reminded me of something. After it ended, I realized that it reminded me of Mere Brother Ki Dulhan.

In Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Imran Khan plays Kush, who agrees to find a wife for his brother Luv (Ali Zafar). He finds a seemingly ideal match in Dimple (yes! a person named Dimple!), but, none too surprisingly, the two of them end up falling in love with each other, and the film deals with their attempts to find a way to be together without causing hard feelings.

It's not that the plotlines of the two movies are terribly similar, it's the overall feel of both of the films. Both films are simple, aim-to-charm love stories in which the romantic pairs don't intend to fall in love with each other but inevitably and with much cuteness do.

But that's not all. In each film you have a spunky, goofy main female character (who, naturally, also happens to be very beautiful) who takes the lead in a lot of the hijinks of the film but also is a bit childlike and needs to be reigned in a smidge by the main male character.

Katrina Kaif, incidentally, is much better at being cute and quirky than emotional or sultry. I wouldn't say that she displays any great acting in MBKD, but her performance is pretty charming nonetheless.

Also, in each of these movies, the male protagonist is more sensible and a bit more conservative and buttoned-down than his love interest, and more sensitive to the possible repercussions of the two of them deciding to be together.

But since they are both feel-good romcoms, in the end, love gets to prevail in both movies!

It occurs to me now that I'm not quite sure of the point of this exercise in comparison, unless it is to point out that if you liked one of these, you will quite likely enjoy the other as well. I very superficially enjoyed them both. Nothing deep here; what you see is what you get!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Our Mediocre Story- Teri Meri Kahaani

It pains me to say it, but I have to be honest. It's getting difficult to sustain my enthusiasm for Shahid Kapoor.
I know!

I'm not giving up hope, because he has some new projects in the works, and there are still a few of his older films I haven't seen yet. But the latest I watched, Teri Meri Kahaani (Our Story), was not terribly encouraging.

It's not that it is really all that awful, it just isn't anything special. The story is actually three love stories with Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra playing the couple in all three. At the beginning you think it's a reincarnation-themed story about love triumphing throughout all lifetimes, but by the end it feels more like those responsible for this film had three story ideas they couldn't decide between and ended up putting all three together in one movie, which necessarily means that none of the stories are fleshed out or well-developed.

Also, the chemistry between Shahid and Priyanka is lacking. This is, however, largely because Shahid's character is pretty much a jerk in two out of the three vignettes (in the remaining one he's arrogant, but seems  more of a decent guy who messes up than a rampant egomaniac). I hope this is the writing and not what Shahid brought to the table, and I think it is, because it actually exemplifies my most-hated Bollywood trope. That would be the womanizing, arrogant, sexist male character with no respect for women who suddenly falls in love with a 'good girl,' and, we are supposed to believe, instantly transforms into a faithful, loving man who should be entirely forgiven by both the audience and his love interest and deserves her love and trust and would never, you know, go back to behaving the way he's always behaved up to that point. Uh huh. Sure.

At least the recreation of 1960s Mumbai (or should I say Bombay?) and the recreation of Lahore in 1910 are fun to see and give us some interesting and beautiful costumes and settings to look at.

 The story set in 2012 lacks this, of course, and is very concerned with texting (and facebook). I would think that most everyone at this point knows that it's not very interesting to watch someone else text (we've all been in the company of someone glued to their phone, right?), even if they are Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, but the filmmakers seem to think it is. I pretty much hated everything about the 2012 segment.

There was some nice music, although come to think of it, I even hated the music in the 2012 segment. Shahid danced, and it's always a pleasure to see some dancing from Shahid. Personally I think they could have had him dance even more. There can never be too much Shahid dancing.

If you're not feeling very choosy and you'd like to watch a romantic comedy and you like Shahid and/or Priyanka, then this is a decent timepass. Otherwise, don't bother.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Baazigar the bizarre

So. I watched  Baazigar, the 1993 movie that was a breakthrough role for Shah Rukh Khan.

It's truly bizarre.Consider the following images:

All in one film! Bollywood Zorro is particularly great, isn't it? 

This is a wild trip of a film, but very entertaining and actually quite well-written. It is a thriller, but pretends it isn't for a little while.

In the very beginning, you know it's not all sweetness and light. A young boy runs through the rain to find a doctor for his mother. We learn she has had some sort of breakdown due to an undisclosed "setback." We don't know where his father might be. Then we see a montage of the boy struggling to support and care for his mother, until eventually he grows into Shah Rukh Khan. (Incidentally, they did a great job finding a boy who looks like SRK, and the boy turned out a great performance.)

The film thereupon mostly masquerades as a typical Bollywood romance for awhile. SRK goes to the city to get a job, leaving his mother in a family friend's care. He has a girlfriend and sings happy Bollywood love songs with her. They are keeping their relationship secret for fear her father will not approve. All of this is, of course, well-treaded Bollywood ground.

There are some continuing hints that all is not what it seems. An example is the occasional creepy music. Still, when the monumental twist comes, it's a big shock. A very big shock. A sincerely shocking shock. A... ok, I actually knew it was coming because Anupama Chopra discusses this film in her biography of SRK (which I reviewed here), and it STILL shocked me. I imagine Indian theaters when this was first released must have been filled, at this particular point in the film, with the thunderous sound of many jaws hitting the floor.

No, I'm not going to tell you what happens. If you have made it this point in your life without knowing the twist of Baazigar, I'm not going to be the one to spoil it for you. It's too late for me; Anupama Chopra's book spoiled it. But I'm not going to be responsible for this happening to any other burgeoning Bollywood fan.

SRK is riveting in this. True, part of that is just the way the role is written, since it is such a surprising role, but he also completely commits to his bizarre character. He gleefully embraces the crazy, and the result is something that is hard to look away from. It's a very emotionally compelling performance. The rest of the cast is quite good as well. Kajol really impressed me, although I did think it was too bad that her character dwindled from strong and determined to crying and standing by watching the climax. Of course, that's not really her fault.

Still, the script is strong-- surprisingly so, even. For example, I have grown used to the silly comical subplots that crop up occasionally in Bollywood films, especially older ones, and I no longer expect them to make any sense or have anything to do with the main story line. Here there are comical bits involving a household servant who keeps causing trouble by being quite unable to remember even the simplest of things. Imagine my surprise when this is actually put to the service of the plot, and helps move the main story forward! It was nice to see.

The songs are a bit of a mixed bag (and the costumes are, ahem, really something), but often enjoyable. In the version I watched they were not subtitled, however, so I only caught words here and there. I find that very annoying, by the way. If I need the subtitles, why wouldn't I also need them for the songs? I don't understand why they are left off sometimes.

Back to Baazigar-- overall, this a gripping, fascinating film. The wild ride culminates in a very violent, bloody ending, though, so be aware of that before proceeding!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bemused by my lack of enthusiasm for Barfi

I was really quite certain I would like this movie.

I saw Ranbir Kapoor in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year and thought he did an excellent job. I had faith in Priyanka Chopra's abilities after seeing Kaminey. Ileana D'Cruz was a complete unknown to me, but fans of South Indian films were very enthusiastic about her.

I heard that the movie was feel-good and sweet, funny, well-made, and possessing plenty of heart. This is the kind of thing I generally like.

It was a hit in India, and people in the know in those parts liked it so well that it was India's 2012 entry for the "Best Foreign Language Film" category at the Oscars.

I was all geared up for a fabulous time when I streamed it, but somehow, for me, it fell a little flat. And it's hard for me to pinpoint exactly why.

It wasn't the acting. All three of the leads were good, and so were the supporting actors. Ranbir's character was deaf and mostly mute, and Priyanka's character was severely autistic, so there was plenty of room for embarrassingly misguided performances. But this was not a problem.

It wasn't the direction or the cinematography. There are some beautiful pictures in this film, and I liked how much they played with light versus shadow.

It wasn't the physical comedy. It was well-done and  not nearly as extreme as some Bollywood flicks go, and very often done in homage to Chaplin and in that style. There was some internet chatter about "copying," and I'll admit it was a little weird to see a scene basically lifted from Singin' in the Rain that didn't really fit where it was placed, but it was a small scene and not something likely to make me hold a grudge.

We may be getting closer with the music. No song-and-dance numbers, and the underlying soundtrack had a repetitiveness that became a bit grating after awhile. But there were some nice songs, too.

And it's not that the story was bad either, although one problem was that it had too much going on. I think what it boiled down to was the central message of the movie resulting from how the story was framed. The message of the movie seems to be "you better get love right the first time, because you get no second chances for happiness!" Bull, I say. (And I say this as someone who married her first love!) And, for me, this message fairly ruined what should have been a perfectly lovely movie. But it was a movie that demanded to be taken seriously, so I can't help but be seriously nettled by that central message.

It's too bad, though. And it would have been nice for India to get that Oscar nomination...