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...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another Brief Bollywood Book Review- Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief

If you are interested in the workings of Hindi cinema, I have an excellent book to recommend to you. The extensively titled Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking by Stephen Alter is a treat.  

It's the next best thing to being a fly on the wall watching the making of a Bollywood film, from conception to screening.

The author, Stephen Alter, has the perfect credentials to take on this project. He speaks Hindi, having been born and raised in India, the son of missionaries. He also has a cousin, Tom Alter, similarly born and raised in India and now a naturalized Indian citizen, who works as an actor in Bollywood. With this competence and connection, he is able to take us on a fabulous journey through the making of Vishal Bhardwaj's refashioning of OthelloOmkara, which, incidentally, is among my favorite Bollywood films. It's also an excellent choice, being a re-telling of such a well-known work that spoilers needn't be an issue.

Alter takes us from brainstorming with Bhardwaj and some of his friends, to pitching the script to Ajay Devgan (interestingly, it seems you can't often just send a script to a Bollywood star, you have to go pitch it to them), to the traditional ceremony that accompanies the first take, and on throughout each step for making the movie. The reader gets to witness the brutally honest debates over actors' talents that accompany casting pow-wows, see how the actors behave between takes, and observe all the work involved in putting an item number together.

To further enhance the fun, the chapters detailing Alter's observation of the process of making Omkara are interspersed with delightful chapters in which he highlights different industry players whom he was able to interview, from directors like Madhur Bhandarkar and actors like Dev Anand, to an acclaimed lyricist, to marketers and technicians.

Honestly, with his insider status and language abilities, Alter probably would have given us a book worth reading even if he wasn't much of a writer. As it is, his credentials include several other works both non-fiction and fiction, and a highly successful stint teaching writing at MIT. The writing is evocative and excellent and book is structured skillfully. It's also just all kinds of fun to read. I recommend it unreservedly!

Stephen Alter

Monday, March 4, 2013

I think I love Farah Khan- Om Shanti Om

I had already watched Main Hoon Na and loved it. Last night I watched Farah Khan's Om Shanti Om and laughed so hard my long-suffering husband could hear me from across the house where, eschewing Bollywood, he was watching his own shows via Hulu on his laptop.

Farah, I think I love you. Both Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om parody and poke fun at Bollywood, but they do it with loving and large-hearted humor. I think people underestimate the skill this takes. Beyond the fact that good comedy is always a lot harder to pull off than it looks, it is particularly difficult to satirize or parody without coming off as a bit spiteful or, at least, condescending in a "we see this is funny because we're so above it ourselves" kind of way. Then when such a film goes ahead and uses the same plot devices, it comes off as stupid pandering (I'm looking at you, I Hate Luv Storys!).  Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, however, avoid this completely. Instead, they warmly embrace what they are mocking. "Look at what we love!" they seem to say, "Isn't it silly? Isn't it funny how much we love this?"

In the beginning of Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan plays a bit-part Bollywood actor in the 70s named Om, who dreams of making it big and is madly in love with the star heroine, Shanti, played by Deepika Padukone. After saving her from an on-set fire gone out of control, they spend some time together and he nurtures hopes of winning her love. However, things take a turn for the tragic, and she is murdered and he dies trying to save her. He is immediately reincarnated as the son of an industry big-wig, also named Om, and the story picks up 30 years later, when he is just as big a Bollywood star as his past incarnation ever dreamed of being. Of course, eventually things awaken memories of his past life, and he becomes determined to obtain justice for Shanti's murder... and maybe find his love, reincarnated as he was.

This was also my first Bollywood film involving reincarnation as a plot device, and it makes me want to check out what other films have done with it. I don't believe in it in the slightest, but it makes for a fun and interesting way to frame a story. I really felt for Shah Rukh's first character's mother, who could recognize the reincarnated SRK as her son though at first he had no memory of it. Besides, the role was filled by Kirron Kher, whom I adore. She is fantastic, and probably my favorite Bollywood "mother."

Yay Kirron Kher-ji!

In character.

Deepika Padukone is a surprising delight as Shanti. Apparently, I judged her too quickly by her performance in Love Aaj Kal (bland bordering on boring) and her item number turn in Billu Barber (stiff). Here she demonstrates good range and an ability both to charm and to turn vulnerable. I am now more inclined to look into more of her movies (but not Cocktail, having sworn off any more films with Saif Ali Khan as a smarmy lead romantic hero).

And speaking of item numbers, the brilliant "Dard E Disco" in Om Shanti Om celebrates their appeal and absurdity wonderfully. "We need an item number or this film will flop!" present-day Om declares to the director of a film he's working on. Thus we get a shirtless, six-packed Shah Rukh dancing with beautiful women in a routine that is completely separate from any plot (in the main film OR the film-within-a-film) and that involves him being regularly doused with water. Yup, that'll do it.

Simply put, I had a wonderful time watching this movie. The story intrigued me even separately from all the laugh-out-loud humor, and I never felt it dragged (ok, the "Deewangi Deewangi" song with all the cameo appearances by Bollywood personalities went a bit long, but it's catchy!). The movie is, indeed, chock-full of references and inside jokes. Which means I probably wouldn't recommend it as a very first Bollywood film. Even a handful of Bollywood movies as background will most likely ensure plenty of laughs, though. I laughed until my stomach hurt, but I probably didn't get half of the humor, which, delightfully, means that this is a film that will likely get even funnier for me as time goes on!