Monday, April 11, 2016

MILEY NAA MILEY HUM: No Charm, No Foul Smells

[thanks, Wikipedia]
Poor Chirag (Chirag Paswan). His feuding, separated parents are competing to arrange his marriage. Will they ever see eye to eye? Will Chirag be able to please them both? These are the burning questions of Miley Naa Miley Hum.

Mom (Poonam Dhillon) imports an attractive young woman, a designer from London. As a designer, she is quite a shopper—until Chirag suggests that since she can't find exactly what she's looking for, she might try designing it herself. This discussion of The Obvious is apparently a revelation to her.

Dad (Kabir Bedi) calls in a favor from an old friend, who calls off his own daughter's impending wedding so she'll be available to become Mrs. Chirag. Dutifully, the daughter plays along, abandoning her future plans to cook and serve at Dad's residence while waiting to be promoted to Bahu No. 1. Her feelings on the subject are totally unexamined. (To quote Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, "It can't matter to you!")

Why does Dad hate Mom? Because Dad is a humble farmer—Bollywood humble, that is, which means that he lives in a mansion with a pool surrounded by vineyards—and Mom wanted to run a non-agricultural business and spoil their son with Western luxuries. No surprises there. And why does Mom hate Dad? Because TENNIS. That, frankly, was a bit of a surprise.

In order not to show favoritism—or perhaps in order to manage parents who have the emotional maturity of preschoolers—our handsome hero pretends to be in love with a model (Kangana Ranaut). He pays her to be seen in public with him, and then they... oh, you can guess how this plays out.

In 2011, when she made Miley Naa Miley Hum, Kangana Ranaut also gave a standout performance in Tanu Weds Manu, and she has since proven her comic and dramatic chops as the irresistible heroine of Queen. As Anishka, though, she barely registers. Perhaps that's because her pretty but blank costar gives her so little to work with. (He has now retired from films and gone into politics.) As the parents, Poonam Dhillon and Kabir Bedi work joylessly through the plot machinations. If controlling their son's life isn't even any fun, why do they bother?

Product placement provides the only hilarity in this otherwise dreary slog. Anishka attends a party that is the place to see and be seen by producers and important people, hoping to expand her career. At this party she will drink champagne and eat sushi and meet Chirag by adorably puking on his shirt, but that is not the comedic climax of the scene. Check out this actual uncropped screenshot from the film:

Yep, that's right—there are no actors onscreen, just a full shot of the deodorant billboard that adorns the lawn of the expansive bungalow. Imagine the calls from agents to starlets before the event: "Look your best, darling! It's for OCTANE!"

Other advertisers get in the act after [spoiler alert, if you have never seen a film before] Chirag wins a major tennis match and reunites his parents. Here Chirag, trophy in hand, comes to meet his chastised mom and dad. The big finish plays out here—in front of this billboard for mouthwash:

Did director Tanveer Khan get in trouble for failing to capture the brand name in the shot? Just curious. He seems not to have directed anything since.

And that's that. Chirag and Anishka and Mom and Dad will all live happily ever after, with bad breath forever banished! Apparently even the filmmakers knew that Miley Naa Miley Hum was going to stink.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

GANGS OF WASSEYPUR: Return of the Kingpins

One of my first posts on this blog was a response to a first viewing of Gangs of Wasseypur, Part 1, and two and a half years later, the full two-part, 320-minute film has finally gotten a U.S. theatrical release. I took this rare opportunity to catch both parts back to back at Lincoln Center in NYC, where the film is playing for the rest of the week.

There's nobody working in Indian cinema--or maybe any cinema--who uses musical numbers better than director Anurag Kashyap does. First, he's not afraid to include music, and a lot of it. Second, he gets the best people in the business to write the new material (here, the great Sneha Khanwalkar is music director) and also weaves in a few classic Bollywood songs. And third, he uses the score brilliantly to comment on and contrast with what he's showing onscreen.

The outstandingly profane* number "Kehke Lunga," for example, underscores what Part 1's opposing strongmen, Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia, also a well-known director) and Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), are doing to each other and to all the little people they mangle with so little thought:

The full version of the film is admittedly imperfect. Part 2 may be overpopulated; is it necessary to introduce two major new characters an hour from the end of a five-hour film? Also, Sardar Khan's third son, the one between Faizal and Perpendicular, vanishes without a trace--his presence in the story at all seems like a vestige of a storyline not quite completely left on the cutting-room floor. The narration by family retainer Nasir (Piyush Mishra**) sometimes exposits at excessive length to introduce complications that vanish in a few minutes and might have been omitted without much loss to the film. Blips like these are evidence that the plot's layers and layers and layers of complexity aren't completely under anyone's control.

But this feels like quibbling. My overwhelming feeling after watching the full five-hour, seventy-year, three-generation story is that it all went by awfully quickly, the way life does. Perhaps the unspooling narrative aims to demonstrate that nobody from Anurag Kashyap on down can keep track of all the petty slights and monstrous deeds that repeatedly bring repercussions in Wasseypur. At any rate, I sure can't, even after seeing both parts more than once. The one sure thing is that there's going to be a lot of killing, most of it for really bad reasons.

I love Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in pretty much every film of theirs I've seen, and they are typically terrific as a father-son duo of fuckup kingpins. As mentioned in my 2012 post, in Part 1 Sardar Khan makes a series of disastrous personal choices that enrage two steely women, Nagma (Richa Chadda) and Durga (Reema Sen). Sardar fears their reactions, but probably not enough. Nawazuddin's Faizal Khan is the lead in Part 2, a stoner who cares only about his chillum and his girl, Mohsina (Huma Qureshi), whose love of 1970s action movies matches his own. When Faizal finally exacts vengeance for the murder of his sometimes-deadbeat dad, it's because his mother Nagma insists--and also because he's realized that in the movie of his life he's been the sidekick (or as he says, not Amitabh Bachchan but Shashi Kapoor).

The reduced screen time for Richa Chadda and Reema Sen in Part 2 is a bit of a disappointment, but perhaps Nagma and Durga's declining influence is a necessary result of Faizal's decision to be more like Amitabh (well, except much more enthusiastically bloodthirsty). Until the end of the film, Mohsina seems mostly OK with Faizal's turning himself into the star of the show. But then she's pregnant, and suddenly it must seem to her that being married to good-boy Shashi instead of to avenging Amitabh might not be such a terrible thing.

The rage of Nagma and Durga continues to infect their sons, and there is plenty of blowback from the feuds that they've helped perpetuate. The ongoing bloodshed touches all the women in the extended household, even those who aren't machinating behind the scenes. A high point of Part 2 is the song "Taar Bijli," performed by Nagma for the women celebrating Mohsina's wedding to Faizal. Nagma has been widowed by gang violence, as have other women in the room. Her voice cracks and tears run down her face. But she keeps singing. The younger women comfort Nagma while continuing to dance.

The film whirls on at a dizzying pace, tossing out romance and hilarity and fury and horror without leaving the audience time to breathe. The final scene at last allows a few characters to escape the maelstrom, but without illusions. With cast changes, deadlier guns, and updated Bollywood ringtones, the story seems likely to go on for generations to come.

*Google it if you want to know exactly how obscene the lyrics are--or just see it in the print playing in theaters now, which (I'm thrilled to report) includes song subtitles!

**Piyush Mishra also serves as lyricist for a number of songs, including the raunchy one mentioned in the previous footnote.

Friday, January 2, 2015


About ten minutes into Happy Ending, the new film from writer/director duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, I recalled with a pang my high expectations for and indifferent response to their last movie, Go Goa Gone, which also starred (and was produced by) Saif Ali Khan. Saif was funny in that one as a blond zombie-killer with a faux Russian accent. Overall, though, Go Goa Gone felt like a sketch that lasted much too long. Raj and DK’s earlier 99 and Shor in the City remain favorites of mine, films with heart and soul and danger as well as comic timing, so GGG’s sogginess was a particular disappointment.

I had forgotten all about Go Goa Gone until Happy Ending got into its introduction of Saif Ali Khan’s callow Yudi, who loves the ladies but is such a commitment-phobe that he alienates every girlfriend the moment she says “I love you.” A film about such a lad is not, shall we say, an especially fresh idea. Yudi, who narrates, breaks up with an adoring Kareena Kapoor and then launches into a rant about men being like dogs, of which there are apparently two types: lap dogs and street dogs. <counter-rant>This bogus two-typing irritates me first on behalf of dogs, many of whom are neither spoiled and overfed nor happy to be “free” to scavenge and suffer, and second on behalf of men and women everywhere, who are the same species, after all. I’m deeply tired of assumptions about what women want from men and how women’s wanting inevitably makes men miserable. GAAHHHHH</rant> Watching this, I suddenly remembered that weak film Raj and DK had made in the years since Shor in the City.

The supporting actors in Happy Ending are players I’m almost always glad to see, so I wish that they hadn’t been given roles that further solidify the women-want-to-domesticate, men-want-to-be-free storyline. Kalki Koechlin is amusingly terrifying as a stalker-girlfriend-dentist who refuses to believe Yudi has broken up with her, but when she tries to manipulate Yudi into marriage by claiming she’s pregnant, my patience with the character became very thin. Preity Zinta has even less to work with as the motherly ex who is willing to put her own family life on hold in order to let Yudi cry on her shoulder for no apparent reason. Ranvir Shorey is a miserable cartoon of a best friend who acts as if his wife is keeping him on a leash and, when released for an evening, demonstrates that he needs further housebreaking.

Happy Ending Govinda plastic surgery
Go Govinda Gone
But then there's Govinda. In a small role as over-the-top Bollywood star Armaan, who hires Yudi to multiplexify his single-screen career, Govinda has the time of his life. I am not likely soon to forget the scene in which Armaan ji takes simultaneous meetings with his writer and his plastic surgeon, parading around shirtless with the surgeon’s pre-op Sharpie marks all over his flabby torso and middle-aged face. Props to Govinda for his willingness just to be middle-aged on camera in spite of all the Salmans, Shahrukhs, and Aamirs who have made being forty-plus look so strenuous (even if there is a presumably CGI follow-up scene in which Armaan displays his far more chiseled post-surgical self).

Other small grace notes finally made this a more likable film than I expected after the disappointing start. Saif Ali Khan is loose and easy in a double role as buff Yudi and schlubby Yogi, who may be Yudi’s socially awkward twin or may be a manifestation of Yudi’s inner couch potato (I do wish the screenplay had made it clearer whether this was a real person or a figment of Yudi’s imagination). Leading lady Ileana D’Cruz, who seemed mostly waif-like in Barfi, where she had the misfortune to be cast as the non-disabled character admiring the leads’ enduring love from afar, here has a chance to show a bit of spark. She and Saif Ali Khan have chemistry in a goofy mutual seduction scene—and her character, Aanchal, isn’t nearly as drippy as the godawful prose she has to present at readings of her hit novel. (I know there’s a joke in there about how bad bestsellers can be, but why should her book bore even the people who come to her readings?) Aanchal is no romantic; she’s even more resistant to love than Yudi is, and unsurprisingly, he soon finds that he doesn’t want to live without her.

The ending for Yudi and Aanchal seems happy enough, but Yudi's voiceover points out that the key to a "happy ending" is simply stopping at the right place. There are no guarantees about what will happen afterward.  It's a weird, if potentially thoughtful, note to hit at the end of a romantic comedy.

The film’s meta-story, which purports to be Yudi’s Hollywood notes for Bollywood king Armaan, moves at a leisurely pace and vanishes altogether at regular intervals. Its meandering path only bothered me because I’m a great admirer of the tightly interwoven storylines of 99 and Shor in the City and of the way those two films adroitly mixed great comedy with cold fear. Both films offered happy endings that were not just upbeat, but immensely satisfying.* Happy Ending moves from hardcore cliché toward something more nuanced, but that move somehow makes the film feel as if it simply hasn’t decided on an ending at all.

Damn it, I want closure!

Heading for a happy ending
*I saw Raj and DK at the New York premiere of Shor in the City (then called simply Shor), and after the showing the mostly NRI audience gave the directors a grilling about the lack of “realism” in the ending. The filmmakers pointed out that happy endings are not inherently more unrealistic than unhappy ones. I can’t help wondering, though, if the films they’ve made since Shor have been affected by the festival-goers’ grumbling. Raj and DK, ignore New Yorkers, please! Except me, of course.

Monday, September 29, 2014

QUEEN: News of the World

Kangana Ranaut is so positively adorable as Rani Mehra, the title character in Vikas Bahl's Queen, that I'm willing to overlook the film's imperfections. I've seen her before without being wowed (in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, as a Bollywood starlet involved with a noble gangster; in Tanu Weds Manu, as a girl so wacky and high-spirited that R. Madhavan falls for her while she's unconscious; and in Double Dhamaal, ugh ugh ugh). However, in Queen she inhabits the part of the sheltered apple of her family's eye with enormous charm and gusto. Queen follows Rani's rollercoaster emotional journey from happiness to heartbreak and back, from India to Europe and back, without turning our heroine into a cliché

Would that the same could be said for everyone she meets—but oh, well; let's give credit where it's due: the film's time in Delhi is well spent, and it's a pleasure to meet not just Rani but all the people at home who have made her the gentle soul she is and the strong woman she becomes over the course of the film.

Amit Trivedi scores, in both senses. The first song, just minutes into the film, plunges us into the kind of prenuptial song and dance that would be the climactic number in a more conventional Bollywood narrative. The bride-to-be (Kangana) and her people all dance to filmi songs! Everyone sings vaguely naughty lyrics! Everyone is so, so, so happy!

It's a great song, and a great setup for the quick descent that follows. The bridegroom, Vijay (Rajkummar Rao, once again playing cute-but-weak—I'm still waiting for a role in which I find him likable), asks Rani to meet him at a coffee shop. He has just returned from London and seems as full of pompous notions as SRK was at the beginning of the splashy 2002 Devdas—but Vijay's impulse isn't to woo his old flame by wearing a monocle and English suit; it's to tell his fiancée that he can't marry her because he has become a man of the world, and she's still just a simple, traditional girl.

I can't recall a more dramatic change of mood, from raucous to heartbroken, in the first fifteen minutes of a film, and Amit Trivedi is more than up to the task. The spare, heartbreaking second song plays as the stricken Rani shares an autorickshaw ride home from the coffee shop with her little brother, who wants to help but can't. The would-be bride runs into her house (where everyone has already heard the news) and locks herself in her room.

Both song sequences are smashing--great music and great visuals that work together to make something even more powerful than either one alone. Come to think of it, that pretty much defines what I love about Bollywood at its best.

As Rani remains in her room, a montage of her memories takes us through the surprisingly sweet courtship leading up to the happy engagement party at the beginning. We learn how doggedly Vijay pursued Rani and why she fell for him. Even though we're already quite prepared to see Vijay as a louse, this flashback instead makes us see him as Rani has seen him, and it ensures that we share her shock and bewilderment.

Rani then decides to use her honeymoon ticket to travel to Europe alone. Why shouldn't she see Paris and Amsterdam? Her grandmother sagely agrees with the plan. Her parents are worried about her safety if she goes, but more worried about her misery if she stays. And so, off Rani goes to see what this seeing-the-world is all about.

The film from this point is still charming and funny in parts, but unfortunately, Rani's family at home are far more interesting than the people she meets abroad. In Paris, there's Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon), a brash half-Indian hotel maid, whose small child serves mostly as a cute prop and never gets in the way of his mother's job, romances, or partying. She's a familiar type—a movie babe who looks like a model, wears club clothes to go for a stroll, and boasts of her no-strings-attached attitude about sex. There doesn't seem to be much depth below these surface characteristics, which are nevertheless supposed to persuade us that Vijaylakshmi is the very model of a modern major feminist and that, therefore, a brief exposure to her midriff-baring tops and short shorts will persuade buttoned-down heroine Rani to loosen up and enjoy life already. You can safely go get a cold drink during the scenes in which the obligatory loosening-up happens: shopping for skimpy clothes = Freedom, alcohol is mistakenly ingested (oops!), dancing on the bar ensues. Rani and the maid become fast friends, the way people do in interludes like this.

Maybe I shouldn't be too hard on the screenwriter for constructing this female character out of plywood; the Euro-boys Rani meets are equally two-dimensional. When the newly loosened-up Rani stays at a youth hostel in Amsterdam, she meets cheerful, understanding boys from Russia, Japan, and France who also want her to enjoy life already. While wandering about with them, Rani stumbles across a handsome Italian restaurant owner and argues with him about seasonings. You won't be surprised to learn that Rani ends up cooking Indian food and selling it on the street and that everyone loves it. Or that she kisses the Italian guy and makes him swoon.

However, the film does do some things right, and most of them have to do with taking the time to develop Rani's character*. Rani doesn't cure the Russian of his tendency to drink too much; she doesn't assuage the grief of her Japanese friend, who is mourning his parents' death; and she doesn't fall for the boringly hunky Italian. Even when she does come out of her shell, the movie doesn't require her to display her newfound confidence by trading her salwar kameez for Daisy Dukes and plunging necklines. And best of all, even though dopey Vijay realizes what a mistake he's made and begs her to marry him after all, she doesn't do it (hooray!!!).

The saggy middle of the film might have been a real disappointment if it weren't such a treat to watch Kangana Ranaut in every scene, listening intently and puzzling out how to behave while surrounded by stereotypically free-thinking Europeans. She does an amazing job of letting Rani's smarts, strength, and humor peep through, even when she's facing humiliations large and small. At the end of the film, Rani is back in Delhi, wiser and happier for her adventure, fully aware of what she wants and doesn't want from life. Here, for once, is a character I'd follow to a sequel.

(But next time I'd like both an interesting heroine and interesting sidekicks. Well, baby steps....)

*Kangana Rangaut gets a screen credit for Rani's dialogues.