Monday, November 26, 2012

Jodhaa Akbar- Visiting Mughal India

Recently, I read Indu Sundaresan's books The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. They are well-written and fascinating; the author obviously steeped herself in research, and her books are vividly strong when it comes to a sense of place. The books are about Nur Jahan, who is a very interesting historical figure. She married the Mughal Emperor Jahangir when she was 35, which was considered quite old. She was a widow and already had a daughter at the time. But the emperor married her and was, by all accounts, truly and deeply in love with her, above all his other wives and concubines, and he granted her an extraordinary amount of power.  For a time, she ruled Mughal India.

The movie Jodhaa Akbar is not about her. It is about Emperor Akbar, Jahangir's father, and one of his wives, notable for being Hindu, and I believe she was in fact Jahangir's mother. But Akbar does feature pretty prominently in the first book, The Twentieth Wife (though Jodha Bai is mentioned only once, and not by that name), and after feeling like I had spent a good deal of time in Mughal India via the written word, I thought it would be nice to see a cinematic rendition of that world.

First brief reactions:

*You don't want to be the target of an elephant on the battlefield.

*Hrithik Roshan is an extremely attractive man.

*Proof that actors don't have to get naked to portray a sensual romance.
*I loved it!

This movie, at 3.5 hours, was a not inconsiderable investment of my time, but I was totally, blissfully involved. Nary a boring moment. Aishwarya was, as always, stunning. She also gives a lovely performance in a strong role (and, for a bonus, we get to see her sword-fighting, which was very fun). This was my first view of Hrithik, and he is definitely easy on the eyes (see first reactions above).

This is the story of Emperor Akbar marrying Jodhaa Bai, a Hindu princess, as a political alliance, and how they come to truly love each other. It is mainly a romance, with the intrigues of the empire as a backdrop. It is full of color and has beautiful costumes and music. And did I mention that I loved it?

Netflix has been pushing Jodhaa Akbar at me for some time, but I'm actually glad I waited on this one. Some things I would have found very confusing without having read Sundaresan's books, like the fact that he's not called Akbar at all for most of the movie. Thanks to The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, I knew that names were changed and added at important times throughout the lives of important Mughal figures, so I wasn't left scratching my head, just pleasantly wondering when the "Akbar" would come. Another small example is when they show Akbar sitting in one side of a large balancing scale while they pile gold and treasure into the other side. No explanation is given, so it's only through the reading I had recently done that I knew this was something done at celebrations or perhaps generally auspicious times, and that "his weight in gold" was to be distributed to the common people. And all-in-all, I just have the sense that I had an easier time following what was going on with all the politics and battles and what-not having read those books.

On the other hand, I'm fairly certain not being a scholar on Mughal India is a good thing when it comes to enjoying this film. The (very) small amount of reading I have done makes it clear that this wasn't an entirely accurate representation. For example, where is the rest of his harem? Conveniently absent, but the onscreen presence or even the allusion to more wives (not to mention concubines- and isn't that a horrible sounding word?) would have been to great detriment to the romance. And I love the romance, so I am glad they skipped the historical accuracy there. Hrithik and Aishwarya did a fabulous job portraying the gradual rise in both physical attraction and actual respect and affection, and the will-they/won't-they tension was delicious.

One of the things I love about this romp through Indian cinema I've been taking is the enjoyable cumulative effect of things making more sense because of other things that I've seen already, or, conversely, discovering something that illuminates something I've seen before. Two such instances from this viewing experience:

On their wedding night, Jodhaa is standoffish and tells him she married him for her people, but her heart is not ready to accept him. He tells her that according to the laws of Islam, if a wife is not happy she can divorce her husband. She replies that that may be true in his traditions, but as a Hindu she believes the bonds of marriage last "for seven lifetimes." Light bulb moment! So that's why, in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,  


when Nandini tells Samir she is married and staying with her husband, and he lets her go, he says the time they spent together will last him for seven lifetimes, but on the eighth life he wants to be with her again. Those specific numbers meant something! I get it now!

Also, after having listened to the soundtrack from Ek Tha Tiger for the last few months, especially this song, and having gone to the Bollymeaning site (love that place) and read this very nice explanation of what the title word "Mashallah" means, it was very fun for me when, during their mostly playful sword-fight, Akbar removes the scarf from Jodhaa's face and then exclaims appreciatively, "Mashallah!" I was grinning like a little kid, thinking, "Hey, I know what that means!"

But maybe I'm easily excited.

Easily excited or not, this film was a treat! If you like romance at all, not to mention beautiful costumes, battles, intrigue, scheming, excellent music, a compelling sense of glimpsing an exotic time and place, and, well, most of all, romance- then you're in for a good time! Have fun and think of me when you hear him say "Mashallah!"

Monday, November 19, 2012

Stopping the moonlight- My attempt to watch Chandni

When Bollywood works for me, it is a fabulous cinematic experience. It may make my heart sing or crack, but either way, it's worth the investment of my time. But let's face it: there's a reason Bollywood's reputation isn't entirely sparkly with praise from across the globe. It doesn't always work. Sometimes it is flat, or dreadful, or flatly dreadful.

In other news, I tried to watch Chandni.

I think Chandni has been in my "Netflix recommends for you" row since I first watched a few Bollywood films. I saw it there but it never caught my eye, what with the surfeit of Bollywood available, enough to look into it. However, it has been slowly and inexorably looming larger in my awareness for some time. I learned, because it is used in many song lyrics, that "chandni" means "moonlight." And I thought, "Oh, that's what that movie title means..." I gradually became aware, watching the song "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi over and over again (many many times- it was the toddler's favorite for a good long time, so the entire family has seen this one countless times) while also reading and learning more about Bollywood, that the lyrics of the song are in large part made up of references to other songs and movies. "Oh," I thought, "When he sings 'Meri Chandni,' maybe it's a reference to that film I see on Netflix..." Most recently, with the buzz surrounding Sridevi's newest film English Vinglish, I, well, heard of Sridevi, who plays the heroine (from whose name the title comes) of Chandni and is, according to some internet sources, "a legend."

Moreover, it is a Yash Chopra film! I thought it was time to pull the trigger.

The film starts promisingly, with a dance number by Sridevi, looking impossibly large-eyed, dewy, and winsome.

While she is dancing, I got the first hint of something amiss: Rishi Kapoor is there, angling to watch her dance, trying to sneak into the performance although (for some reason) her audience is entirely female (she's dancing at a wedding celebration). I saw Rishi Kapoor in Bobby, and he was fresh-faced and appealing. Chandni is some 16 years later, and he looks flabby-faced and unattractive. (Sorry, Rishi, but it's true. You're looking much more palatable now that no one is trying to make a romantic lead out of you.) They also stuck him in the most ridiculously unflattering clothes. For a futile moment I hoped he wasn't to be her hero, but I also sinkingly knew he was, because there he was, ogling her dancing. From my limited Bollywood experience, being desperate to see or being captivated by a girl's dancing is a sure sign of a sudden and irrevocable plummet into romance. This was not a good sign. But there was the possibility that they could make it work.

It did not work.

After her dance, Rishi's character accosts (assaults) Chandni on the stairs, declaring his love for her apropos of nothing (does she even know who this guy is??) and demanding she reciprocate ("Do you love me? Yes or no?"). At one point, as she tries to slip past him and go back to whatever she was planning to do before he inserted himself into her life, he actually grabs her wrists and twists her into himself, holding her is a semi-chokehold. My eight-year-old daughter was in the room and commented in disgust, "I would never want someone to grab me like that!" And we immediately had a little discussion about how she was perfectly right in feeling that way, about how he was being a jerk and no one should be treated like that, and about how this was an entirely inappropriate way to express affection. Because, wow, Great Jangling Bangles what a hideous way to kick-off a relationship! After she has finally escaped to her room she looks at her wrist to see it bleeding because Rishi broke a bangle when he grabbed her. How romantic.

As the wedding celebrations continue Rishi's character keeps inserting "Yes or no?" accompanied by meaningful looks into his every interaction with Chandni. And how does he finally get the answer he wants? He takes her for a motorcycle ride and scares her by driving fast and recklessly, shouting that he'll stop when she says "yes." So that's how their love affair begins. Under duress. None of this is even slightly ameliorated by any chemistry between Rishi and Sridevi, because I can see none. Later, Rishi shows her his room, which he has wallpapered with various photos of her. She is apparently touched by this disturbing behavior, which was disturbing to me as a viewer.

To make a long story short (too late), I stopped watching during the "honeymoon in Switzerland" dream sequence. I do not have enough free time in my days to permit me to even come close, over the course of my lifetime, to watching all the Bollywood films I might possibly find enjoyable. I'm certainly not going to waste any of my allotted Bollywood hours watching something so joyless.

"I wonder if she'll like me in Amar, Akbar, Anthony..."

If anyone out there wants to tell my why I'm completely wrong and Chandni is a marvel of film-making, please feel free!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge- First impressions of Shah Rukh Khan

Before I take a look at the last two Shahid Kapoor films my semi-obsession led me to, let's talk about Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which I watched somewhere in the middle of all these Shahid films.

It began to be clear that, as much as I love Shahid Kapoor and think he is terrifically talented, his filmography is something of a mixed bag. After awhile it occurred to me that I should maybe try another avenue for finding fantastic Bollywood. To the internet I went, and searched for something like "best Bollywood movies." People disagree, of course, but I began to notice one title coming up again and again. A long title in Hindi that I found, at first, completely impossible to keep in my head. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

Before looking into this film, I had never heard of Shah Rukh Khan. Now that I have waded a smidgen further into the sea of Bollywood, it seems incredible, but it's true. I had never heard of Shah Rukh Khan. If any readers are uninitiated or newly curious about Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan is a megastar- quite possibly, by sheer number of fans, the biggest movie star on the planet. Just barely having dipped my toe into Bollywood, I did not know this. But people on the internet were gushing, absolutely gushing about this movie. And I read that it is the longest running film in Indian history. According to the wikipedia entry, as of this writing it is still running in Mumbai. It first came out in 1995. Can you imagine a movie in the US staying in theaters for over 15 years? I was intrigued by reports of this phenomenon of a film.

The English translation for Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: "The brave-hearted will take the bride."

So I watched it. And I liked it. I did like it. I enjoyed it. But, perhaps not unsurprisingly, after having found it because it was touted as being one of THE BEST BOLLYWOOD MOVIES EVER, and after all the anticipation... it didn't seem THAT amazing.

And I was bemused by SRK (that's Shah Rukh Khan, don'cha know). I thought he was unbelievably annoying for the first half of the film, and only started showing some charm in the second half in India, charm which was still interspersed with obnoxious interludes. I could see- it was plain and obvious- that we were supposed to find his manic antics charming, his habit of talking really fast and over the top of people funny, and his entire manner rakish and endearing. But I must admit that it turned me completely cold. Also, and this is another thing that I find odd to remember, I thought he was really ugly. *ducks and runs away from legions of angry SRK fans*

I did! I thought he was "homely as a mud fence," as my mother used to put it. Now, in the second half of the film I began to see his charm. I had been thinking, as I watched, "THIS is the biggest star in India?" Then came the song Tujhe Dekha To, and the romancing started in earnest, and I began to get a glimmer of the appeal. His eyes are very expressive. He can do the lovey-dovey eyes like nobody's business. He is a master of being besotted.


So no need to fear- eventually I joined the fantastically huge brigade of Shah Rukh Khan fans. The man has been blessed with heaps and bags of charisma. But it wasn't DDLJ that turned me into a fan of SRK. That honor belongs to Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, bridged to by Dil To Pagal Hai. But that's a topic for another day.

So the story: Raj (SRK) and Simran (Kajol- another very famous Bollywood luminary whom I hadn't heard of before this film) have grown up in London but are Indian at heart. They meet as they take a trip through Europe with groups of mutual friends after graduation. Simran first hates Raj, but then she falls in love with him, which is a problem because after the trip she's going to India with her family and marrying her father's best friend's son, whom she has been promised to since birth. Raj follows her to India and devises a plan to win her father over and marry Simran himself.

It was interesting to see how adamant Raj was the Simran's father give his consent. Simran actually asks him to run away with her, but he insists that this is not what Indians do, and he will only marry her with her father's permission. This is totally foreign to both my Hollywood experience and my actual experience (I didn't let my husband ask my father for my hand in marriage, only his blessing, because I thought it would be disingenuous when I knew I would marry him no matter what my parents said). And therefore fascinating.

DDLJ won me over in the end, just like Shah Rukh did. If you want to get into Bollywood at all, this really is a must see. It is referenced over and over and over again. Just try not to let Raj annoy you in the beginning, open yourself to romance laden with traditional Indian family values, and enjoy the ride!


Monday, November 5, 2012

Searching for Shahid, Part 2

So, I found Vivah through the "search for anything with Shahid Kapoor in it" technique, and it was maybe the fifth Bollywood I ever watched. As I look back on finding and watching Vivah, it occurs to me that it's a little odd that I like this film so much. It's a bit slow. OK, more than a bit slow. It is intensely saccharine. It doesn't have the exuberant dance numbers that I enjoy so much. The characters are all unbelievably upright and honorable and nice, except for a token angry character who comes around in the end. It's just very... sweet and slow.

 BUT Shahid Kapoor and Amrita Rao are so ridiculously beautiful that you CAN'T LOOK AWAY.

Also, I found it very intriguing to see such an idealized depiction of traditional arranged marriage. With the disapproving fascination Westerners have for the concept, we tend to think we understand a story about fighting against an undesired arranged marriage, but this is a movie about an arranged marriage that works just exactly the way it's supposed to, with everyone happy and no conflict.

The story is about how Prem and Pooja meet when their families decide they want to match them together. The fall in love in that brief first meeting, agree to the marriage, and the movie follows their engagement period as they get to know each other better. The night they are supposed to marry, there is a terrible accident that leaves Pooja's family worried that the marriage won't happen. But love triumphs, and I don't consider that a spoiler, because it is made obvious the entire way through that only a picture perfect happy ending would be allowed here!

Shahid is excellent, utterly charming and adorable. He fleshes out a pretty one-dimensional character with heart and soul. Amrita does pretty well with what she is given, as well, and she is just stunning. I thought their chemistry was wonderful, and they kept up a pretty sizzling sense that both were greatly anticipating their wedding night. 

I also loved getting to see the full wedding costumes and all of the pomp and preparations involved. Shahid looks fabulous all decked out in wedding clothes. Why do we dress our men so uninterestingly in the West? Dark suits for everything. Yawn.

I thoroughly enjoyed Vivah. But I would never have the husband watch with me, since the appeal would be completely lost on him, and he may well take to hiding whenever I suggest watching a Bollywood film. If you are disinclined to enjoy cloying sweetness, a lack of action, and/or a slow pace, the appeal may well be lost on you, too. However, if watching Bollywood for interesting cultural tidbits appeals to you, or if you could happily stare at Shahid Kapoor being adorable for three hours regardless, take a gander at Vivah.

Next up, one of my kids' favorites. Dil Bole Hadippa!

I searched for Shahid and found Rani Mukerji. This was my first exposure to Rani, and when I watched this, I had no idea what a big star she was. I was actually somewhat surprised that Shahid has relatively little to do, but this is really Rani's movie.

The story is that there is, in the Punjab, a young girl who is fantastic at cricket, and dreams of playing for India and winning the World Cup. (Or something... I think they said it was the World Cup, but I know next to nothing about cricket, and before watching this movie all I knew was that it was a game that people in Britain and India like.) But when she wants to try out for the team, they won't let her because she's female. So she disguises herself as a man and gets on the team, which is coached by Shahid, a big shot cricket player from London. Shahid has also met her as herself, and she claims her male persona is her brother, and romance becomes involved as they are gearing up for a big game against their rival team from Pakistan.

Rani gives an exuberant performance and I love her expressions, but I don't think she really fits her role here, in that it is hard to believe anyone buys her disguise. Even my kids asked, in genuine confusion, "Why can't they see that she's a girl?" To which I could only respond, "Well... she has that fake beard..."

And they gave me pitying looks that made it clear that they were sorry to think I could be taken in by such a thin disguise. And they have a point.

This movie is not going to change anyone's life, but it's a very fun watch. There were some elements that I have since heard others describe as overdone that I really enjoyed, although perhaps because I didn't have a lot of Bollywood experience when I watched it. The patriotic Indian girl defending her country in the face of snobby Londoners... the "we can be friends with Pakistan" message... the London-raised Indian character (Shahid) learning to appreciate his cultural roots... apparently these are recurring themes that some have grown quite tired of, but I was not too jaded to enjoy them! There was also a reference to the staggeringly popular Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, but, well, I hadn't even seen it yet, and so the reference went right over my head.

As for the music- I love it and the kids love it! For awhile is was the go-to when the toddler needed Bollywood Therapy. (Discowale Khisko is excellent for stopping a tantrum, if you're interested.)

Now, on to the very amusing (often unintentionally funny) Milenge Milenge...

I will tell you right from the beginning- this is not a good film. However, if you are the type who enjoys watching a bad movie because you can make fun of it, this may be a good candidate! It overflows with mock-able scenes.

Just a little taste: Shahid falls in love with Kareena when he and his friends dress in drag (!) so that they can go to a party in the girls' dorm.

He loses his way and stumbles into her dorm room, where he watches her sleep, entranced by her beauty. Not satisfied with that level of creepiness, he spies her diary and steals it, where he reads her account of how a fortune teller told her the signs that would reveal her true love to her, and naturally he decides to arrange for them to happen so as to indicate himself as her true love.

Of course she finds out. She never wants to see him again! He begs her to forgive him. She tells him she'll only take him back if it is decreed by fate, and devises a test whereby they can discover fate's opinion on the matter. WILL THEY END UP TOGETHER IN THE END?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to care. This movie is only recommended if one is on a quest to see every film Shahid Kapoor and/or Kareena Kapoor ever made. Not that anyone would do such a thing...

So far, a bit of a mixed bag for Shahid. Next time: Badmaash Company and Kaminey.