Saturday, November 24, 2012

DOUBLE DHAMAAL: Reaching Level 12

Well, I wasn’t sure it could be done, but I’ve seen the proof with my own sorry eyes. Another film released within a year of Joker was just as bad as Joker. Double Dhamaal features the cardboard cutouts of Sanjay Dutt and Arshad Warsi in a “sequel” to Dhamaal (which I haven’t seen, but please tell me it was better than this). In Lage Raho Munna Bhai, these two actors were both endearing and hilarious, and that was a sequel that far outdid its still-pretty-good original, Munna Bhai MBBS. But I’ll have a hard time getting my hopes up for their next outing.

Riteish Deshmukh and Jaaved Jafery should also be ashamed of themselves for cashing checks for their roles here, but let’s reserve our tightest slaps for the director, Indra Kumar (who also gave us the first Dhamaal) and especially for the alleged writer, Tushar Hirandani, who was responsible for Housefull 2 and so seems to be a go-to guy for terrible sequels.

I remember cringing at the stereotypical Chinese baddies in Chandni Chowk to China. Did Tushar Hirandani say, “Gee, that film was a bomb, but the Chinaman was so hilarious I’m going to put one in my movie too”? Maybe, because there’s Arshad Warsi sporting a cheap pigtail and speaking Charlie Chan English. Oh, and let's not forget the blackface on not one, but three characters, all wearing circa-1970s pimpwear. Apparently nobody involved in Double Dhamaal has ever watched this helpful video guide on how to tell if a costume is racist, but everyone should have:

In a piece in Sarnath Banerjee’s great new book, The Harappa Files*, a character argues that all martial arts developed from a South Indian original called kalaripayattu. “There are 12 levels of kalaripayattu,” the gentleman explains. “In the last level, you learn the use of urumi, the most dangerous non-ballistic weapon in the world. But by then you have reached a point where you have no desire to kill anybody. You have nothing left to prove.” When the conversation turns to films, someone asks, “Why are our films so bad, when other developing countries…are making such great films?” Here's a closeup portion of the final panel with the gentleman's response:

Sarnath Banerjee, Harappa Files, the films India was making in the '50s, they are making now. We have reached the 12th level. There is nothing left to prove.

This answer, I think, is the only logical explanation for the existence  of Joker and Double Dhamaal. Some in Bollywood have attained Level-12 filmmaking, and the rest of us should be very, very afraid.

*Buy it immediately. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

JOKER: You've Got to Be Kidding Me

Now and then there’s a film that’s so universally dumped on that you pretty much expect to hate it—and then, maybe because the bar is set so low, you end up enjoying it a lot. I admit it; I liked Tashan—I finally got the appeal of Akshay Kumar, and I thought the faux-Bollywood song “Dil Dance Maare/Very Happy in My Heart” was both a funny parody and a good dance number.

But hoo boy, sometimes the universal dumping is there for a reason. I recently saw Joker, Shirish Kunder’s appalling mess of a movie. I thought at the time that it might just be the worst film I’ve ever seen—and definitely not in a let’s-get-wasted-and-see-a-midnight-show kind of way. There’s no earthly reason for anyone to see this film, much less for anyone to have gone to the trouble of making it.

Joker, Shirish Kunder, Akshay Kumar
Let us hope that he was kidding.
We start this film with Akshay Kumar, a non-resident Indian, living in the United States, being a techno-whiz. (An NRI? Who understands science? You don’t say!) His attempt to build a radio to contact aliens has failed. Since he had a year to succeed and the year expires today (scientific results always being tied punctually to the calendar), he is being snarled at by his financial backer—a hologram of an evil white guy who wants RESULTS NOW—and his tech-dude-arch-nemesis, another evil white guy who speaks in the same hyper-enunciating, apparently overdubbed way that white guys always do in Indian films. (Even good ones. Do Indian directors request this kind of performance from white actors because that’s what Indian films always depict? Are the actors still being badly dubbed, or are they all really this bad? There are good American actors, I swear. I cannot explain why no American has ever given a solid performance in an Indian film.)

Next there’s a flashback to the Independence era, when Paglapur was left off the map because it was home to a huge asylum whose inmates had suddenly escaped, and the mapmaker fled rather than enter the town full of screaming loonies. I’m worried, a bit, that “screaming loonies” may sound politically incorrect—and believe me, as a New Yorker, I have seen more than my share of mental illness. (New Yorkers wear their own small neuroses with pride, and we require massive dysfunctionality before we write people off as crazy.) But these people really are cackling and leaping and burning things. It’s like Wall Street on the verge of the financial crisis.

Naturally these stories must be tied together, because the back of the envelope on which Shirish Kunder has jotted down his script says that they must. And so Akshay Kumar returns from present-day America to his hometown of Paglapur, also in the present day, where all the loonies continue to reside 65 years later—as if mental illness were as genetically determined as the ability to wiggle one’s ears.*

Shah Rukh Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Swades
Shah Rukh shows 'em how it's done.
Like Shah Rukh Khan in Swades, the scientifically wise but emotionally shallow guy returns to the backward village, where he learns all over again how to get in touch with the simple pleasures of life. Like Jodie Foster in Contact, he’s desperate to come up with a message from beyond the stars before the money runs out. And like, oh, Donald Pleasance in the 1982 Alone in the Dark, he is able to communicate with dangerously bonkers inmates when nobody else around is safe from them. Of course, the inmates are Shreyas Talpade and Asrani, so they’re really just lovable goofballs, not killers. (Another difference is that Alone in the Dark is a lot of fun and filled with punk-rock moments, including bits of a live show from Tish and Snooky of the Sic F*cks. It has the courage of its convictions. See it instead.)

And no, I don’t think I’m changing my Barfi tune here. I don’t demand an entirely original, nobody’s-ever-done-this-before screenplay. I just want to watch a real movie, not a lazily patched-together pile of shiny bits that the director hopes will look from certain angles like a story.

Akshay spends a lot of very dull screen time working to fake an alien presence in Paglapur just to keep his evil white nemesis from making him look like the kind of scientist who would, you know, fake an alien presence. The ruse, too, is played for laughs, and as if pulling one over on the American scientist is some kind of moral victory for Akshay. I’m here to tell you that it is not. It is rather a big no-no for the international scientific community. Also for filmmaking, because it's not funny, either.

You know without my telling you that real aliens will appear and vindicate Akshay, but I’m sorry, this is not a vindication. It’s just an alien blessing pasted on top of the enormous fraud that is Joker. I almost rooted for the bad white actor.

*Which, in case you were wondering, I can do.

Monday, October 15, 2012

BARFI: Good Taste

Ranbir in Raj Kapoor mode.
India’s 2012 nominee for the foreign-language Oscars is Barfi, a sweet film starring the charisma-oozing Ranbir Kapoor as a deaf Darjeeling boy. If Ranbir weren’t already a great big movie star, this performance would make him one—he’s graceful and charming, selling comedy and schmaltz with equal panache. Like every Hindi-film fan, I could list star kids at whom producers should stop throwing money, but in Ranbir’s case I’d argue that the genetic slot machine handed him a jackpot (which isn’t to say that he doesn’t put any effort into his roles—only that his effort is usually invisible from the audience’s perspective).

After seeing Barfi at a New York theater recently, I was surprised to learn that the buzz among Indian Oscar-watchers was all about the film’s supposed lack of originality. OK, I thought—maybe the nominating committee picked Barfi in a cynical attempt to piggyback off the success of The Artist, another film with a nearly silent leading man and a lot of nods to plot points and visuals from the pre-talkie era. Remember this?

(In which case, I hereby predict, it was a bad move; there’s no point whatsoever in second-guessing this year’s Oscar winners based on last year’s. But I digress.)

As it turns out, no, The Artist isn't the problem. Instead, as a quick click on some Wikipedia links reveals, Barfi is being charged with stealing ideas from a host of other films, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton silents to South Indian and Korean films of recent vintage. And the Internets are abuzz with concerns from Indians and NRIs that this kind of “cutting and pasting” (or theft, as the less polite would have it) will make Indian film a laughingstock in the international film world.

Now, Indian cinema has had a history of “unacknowledged remakes” in which hits from other cultures (often Hollywood) are recreated—character for character, plot for plot, sometimes word for word—without any “based on a story by” or writer credit to the original film. (Here, for example, is an unacknowledged remake, starring Oscar producer Aamir Khan, of this Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr starrer, and by the way, I loved both films.) And perhaps that history is what’s driving the almost unhinged anxiety among so many in the Indian media about whether Barfi is “original” or not.

But I have seen no evidence at all that Barfi has borrowed or repurposed material from other films on a scale bigger than what is typical in American cinema. Yes, Ranbir recreates Donald O’Connor’s dummy schtick from Singin’ in the Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” number nearly move for move.

But what is he trying to do? Well, the autistic girl he loves, Jhilmil (a very un-glam Priyanka Chopra), is upset, so duh, he’s trying to make her laugh. I don’t know how popular Singin’ in the Rain is in India, but American audiences know it so well that I assumed the reference was purposeful, and it worked beautifully for me.

Raj Kapoor in Raj Kapoor mode.
And I also assumed that Indian audiences would enjoy, as I did, the sight of Ranbir channeling the great Raj Kapoor, whose beloved tramp character was “Chaplinesque” but firmly situated in Indian stories and films. Wearing a pencil moustache through much of the film, Ranbir looks remarkably like a fit, younger version of his grandpa. (Were filmgoers in the 1950s jumping on Raj for borrowing too heavily from Chaplin? If they were, Raj’s legacy is having the last laugh.)

Saurabh and Ranbir?
Yes, Barfi includes moves you’ll recognize from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, with chases that involve teetering ladders and runaway handcarts. The interaction between Barfi, turning to robbery in desperation to pay for his father’s operation, and his fat-cop nemesis (Saurabh Shukla, one of those undersung second fiddles whose solid performances anchor so many Hindi films) is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, or the Keystone Kops—practically any silent featuring an underdog accidentally provoking a foul-tempered authority figure, which is, let’s face it, a lot of movies.

Harold Lloyd goes to Korea?
There’s also talk of a sequence supposedly stolen from the Korean film Lovers’ Concerto (of which I’ve never heard, but who knows, maybe it did blockbuster business in India). A boy who has come on strong to a pair of girls in a restaurant realizes that he shouldn’t have and tries to “turn back time” and start the friendship anew. In the Korean film, the boy shows up outside the restaurant holding a clock. Barfi scales a clock tower precariously and swings the hand back. If you ask me, director Anurag Basu was inspired less by Korea than by Harold Lloyd’s iconic scene from Safety Last, but hey, I guess I’m not really that much of a stickler for originality. Whatever that means.

I really do wish that Indians wouldn’t get vocally outraged about the kind of "plagiarism" that is really a non-issue, if only because it reduces the chances of commercial Indian films being taken seriously abroad. (And yes, there are commercial Indian films that deserve to be taken seriously.) But sadly, I agree that Barfi—which is a very good and hugely enjoyable film—doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting into the foreign-film Oscar Top 5. Why? Well, in the U.S.A., “barf” (rhymes with “scarf”) means “vomit.” And that, not the silent-film references, is what Americans will find hard to swallow.

Charming, not barfy. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

MAIN, MERI PATNI, AUR WOH: Unfaithfully Yours

The title of Chandan Arora's Main, Meri Patni, aur Woh ("Me, My Wife, and Him") reveals that the film's focus is supposedly a marriage, but by far the most interesting part of the movie happens before the couple wed.

As the film opens, Mithilesh Shukla (Rajpal Yadav) is responsible, studious, and single. He manages the library at Lucknow University,  oversees his mother’s household and the marriages of his younger siblings, and feels he has plenty on his plate without a wife. He seems to be a relatively modern guy by Hindi movie-hero standards. (Admittedly, this isn’t saying all that much.)

A prospective bride in a nearby town comes to the family’s attention, so Mithilesh is pressured into accompanying his uncle to the girl’s house. Hardly a girl—she’s thirty, not all that much younger than our librarian hero. He plans to ditch the visit and return by the next bus, but as the uncle points out, why not meet her? She’s probably going to reject Mithilesh anyway for being so short. Ouch.

A nice setup, and the meeting of the very tall, very lovely ancient spinster and the librarian is well played. Nobody will be surprised that our hero begins to reconsider his principled opposition to marriage after meeting Veena (Rituparna Sengupta), who has not only looks but education and shares his literary interests. And though obviously he’ll end up marrying her, it is a surprise—to Veena, too—when his first offer is simply to write to her and be her friend.

Playing the friendship card wins her heart, even as she reveals that she has, in fact, rejected two (presumably height-advantaged) suitors. How modern both our hero and heroine are. And so the couple are wed. As usual, the arranged-marriage plot gives this apparently mismatched pair a solid reason to try to work things out.

Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal, Bombay Talkie
Sadly, the screenplay would have you believe that the little seed of doubt planted in Mithilesh’s mind by Uncle back on the prenup visit quickly grows into a kudzu-like* maze of insecurity that has Mithilesh plotting with increasing ridiculousness to keep all men away from the missus. First he’s jealous of his best friend, a buffoon of a soccer coach. Mithilesh dispatches this first “rival” by lying to both friend and wife about the other’s supposed wish for a sibling, resulting in a rakhee ceremony that puts Mithilesh’s mind at ease. (Perhaps he hasn’t seen Bombay Talkie? But hey, at least in that movie the spouse pained by jealousy has something real to worry about.)

Next Mithilesh resents the milkman’s appearance at the apartment door and cancels the milk delivery. Then it’s the vegetable vendors—hmm, aren't those bitter melon purchases suspiciously haggle-free?? And then he pretends that his mother is lonely and needs her daughter-in-law to spend the days with her helping with housework. On and on and on it goes.

Now, insane jealousy that is both unwarranted and hilarious is not unknown in films. Here’s Rex Harrison in Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours coming unhinged over a bad user interface as he plots to kill his supposedly unfaithful wife:

But whether the problem in MMPAW is the pacing or the writing or the fact that we’re not in the 1950s anymore, here it just isn’t funny. Like, really not funny. And this movie can’t decide whether it’s trying to tug at our heartstrings or make us snicker—but director Arora distinctly seems to expect us to feel sympathy for the librarian and his pathetic insecurity as he works to wall his wife off from all contact with the non-mother-in-law universe.

The film gives no indication that Veena notices that something is amiss, or that she has any objection to being treated as untrustworthy. In fact, Veena's character is quickly made irrelevant to the story. Maybe that's supposed to be the film's way of showing that Mithilesh is entirely focused on his own obsession. But it has the side effect of turning Veena from a real and intriguing character into an invisible woman about whom it's hard to care--which suggests that perhaps Mithilesh doesn't feel much of anything about her, either, other than his pride in having snagged a beauty.

At last, after all the ridiculous non-rivals have made Mithilesh thoroughly paranoid, a plausible actual rival appears in Lucknow. He’s Aakash (Kay Kay Menon), the bride’s childhood friend, who is in town to install Lucknow University's new computer system. He’s smart and thoughtful, he’s known her forever, he’s way taller than Mithilesh, and he’s always around, making Veena laugh and conversing with her as if she were an actual human with interests and intelligence. Oh, and he’s handsome (being Kay Kay) and funny and can even sell a sad song:

Around this point Mithilesh convinces himself of the completely insane notion that Veena wants a divorce so she can marry Kay Kay and that Uncle is actually abetting this plot. (What? Why on earth would he do that? Oh, never mind.)

He decides to be gallant about the whole thing and give Veena up gracefully. This section is a little heartbreaking—not because Mithilesh is sorrowful, but because we've seen no indication that Veena wishes to be given up. Rather, she is delighted at the return of that nice man she agreed to marry as Mithilesh focuses his attention on her for the first time since the wedding. He cooks for her. He asks her to meet him at a  swanky romantic restaurant.

And there, as she eats her soup, Mithilesh tells Veena that he knows her secret and that he’s fine with a divorce. Her actual secret is that she’s pregnant with twins, so she leaves, furious and embarrassed, and goes straight back to her parents. He realizes he’s been a jerk and a dope (duh). They suffer apart briefly and then reconcile, whew, to live what the film wants us to believe will be a perfect, happy life now that Mithilesh has overcome his unreasonable jealousy.

The omniscient narrator (Naseeruddin Shah) deus-ex-machinates that Aakash will get married and move to Bangalore—dispatching Mithilesh's most feared rival in a too-neat solution that won't sort out underlying issues any better than the faux-rakhee ceremony. Honestly, would it have been too much to suggest that our hero actually needs to figure out how to trust his wife?

*Must google kudzu. Does it grow from seeds?

Monday, September 17, 2012

CHHOTI SI BAAT: Cloak of Invisibility

chhoti si baat, amol palekar, vidya sinha, ashok kumar, amitabh, dharmendra
I’m always moaning about Hindi films that rip off Hollywood without successfully transferring the story to an Indian milieu. Well, here’s Chhoti Si Baat, a film that I didn’t even know was a remake of a 1960 British film (School for Scoundrels) because it has been transplanted so successfully to Bombay, circa 1975, and because Amol Palekar is so irresistibly adorable in the role of milquetoast Arun.

This charming main character is a hopeless, hapless office-going underdog so mild as to be nearly invisible. Nobody pays the slightest attention to him at work; by some miracle he has underlings, but they spend their days lounging communally around a transistor radio, blowing off Arun’s requests for reports and files blah blah blah and making him look bad with his own boss. He falls for a pretty girl, Prabha (Vidya Sinha), who works in another office, but he lacks the nerve to speak to her or even to get on the bus after her when the conductor tells him it’s full (which it doesn’t seem to be—maybe things were different in what the IMDb summary calls “pre-hypercongestion Bombay”). But he adores her, so he follows her around just to be near her and her gauzy polka-dot sarees.

Vidya Sinha, Chhoti Si Baat
Vidya being dotty.
The film lets us in on a little secret: Arun may feel invisible, but Prabha has indeed noticed him, and she’s as amused and charmed by him as we are. As she gives a girlfriend at work daily updates on Arun, it’s clear that she is as aware of his every move as he is of hers. However, the proprieties must be observed. So she goes on living her life and waits for him to declare himself.

It takes a while, but that’s not to say that nothing happens. Arun is Mitty-ish as well as Milquetoastian, so we get to see events play and replay in his imagination. It's fun to try to guess what's real and what's only Arun's dream--or nightmare. Here’s one of the film's insanely fabulous bits for those who adore self-referential Bollywood (me! me!)--the song “Jaaneman Jaaneman,” which  purports to be a part of a film Arun is watching in a crowded movie theater:

Dharmendra plays the boy, wooing Hema Malini the girl, and Arun smiles happily at this natural onscreen pairing. But then in his imagination, Hema is replaced with Arun’s own dreamy girl—in the arms of the studly Dharmendra. See Arun squirm! But a moment later Arun has willed himself into the scene, having replaced Dharmendra, and audience-member Arun can relax again.

Outside the movie theater, Arun is equally plagued with jealousy. Prabha’s coworker, a smoothie with a scooter (Asrani, whom I will always think of as the jailer from Sholay), starts offering Prabha lifts to work, taking away Arun’s best chance to talk to her without looking like a creepy stalker. This interference provokes Arun finally to muster the courage to ask Prabha to lunch, and she accepts—but Asrani is there in the restaurant and invites himself to join them, ordering like a big shot before whisking Prabha back to the office and sticking Arun with the check.

After a few more misguided attempts to impress Prabha, each of which fails more spectactularly than the last, Arun seeks guidance from fortune tellers and bogus sadhus before heading to Khandala to find Col. Julius Nagendranath Wilfred Singh (Ashok Kumar), India’s biggest fixer. Why, he’s so famous that Amitabh Bachchan himself, in a squee-inducing cameo, pops in to ask for advice, confers with the colonel, touches his feet, and dashes out. (Is this an Arun fantasy, too?)

Arun naturally follows the Colonel’s advice--come on, wouldn’t you? In short order Arun turns himself into the kind of modern swell who can eat Chinese food with chopsticks, psych out his opponent in table tennis, and trounce Asrani at his own game. Prabha is his!! But has Arun, in the process of becoming a man who can play Dharmendra, lost himself? Will he remain worthy of the “character certificate"  he has offered to show the girl he loves? Will he turn Prabha into the kind of girl who wouldn't be caught dead in a dotty saree?

By raising such questions, it’s clear that the film wants Prabha and Arun to end up together on very old-fashioned terms. It’s not enough for Arun to reveal that he loves Prabha and show some backbone. He has to prove that he is able to become that obnoxious westernized striver so that he can firmly reject that path and succeed in remaining a sweet and decent boy, albeit one who finally knows how to command a little respect from a bored office peon.

So Arun drops his invisibility--giving everyone else the chance to see the basic decency that Prabha has identified all along. And Asrani? He traipses off to Khandala to meet Col. Julius Nagendranath Wilfrid Singh and see if he, too, can find his way back from westernized striving to the sweet and decent path, which is after all where one finds girls like Prabha....

Monday, September 3, 2012


I love self-referential Bollywood movies that allow me to pretend I’m a real insider (instead of wildly ignorant in comparison with even casual filmgoers who’ve grown up in India, which is what I am). How many Yash Raj films jokily quoting Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did there have to be before I decided that one more was too many? A lot, that’s how many.

And what would be an improvement on lame DDLJ jokes? How about a nice little gangster noir with a smart script that really integrates the Bollywood tributes into the story? How about heroes of yesteryear and tomorrow and some terrific character actors? DONE. Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar hurtles headlong from Bimal Roy to Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, with stops to visit Vijay Anand and circa-1971 Amitabh on the way. If there isn’t already a version of the Kevin Bacon game featuring Dharmendra, maybe it’s time to start one.

Writer/director Sriram Raghavan shows a ton of panache and sass that works really well here to give an adrenaline boost and some humor to what is essentially a very dark story. After a dedication to filmmaker Anand and writer James Hadley Chase--my fellow American, but I don’t know his work at all--the film begins at the end, with a black-and-white scene of a busload of snickering cops followed by a shooting. (This isn't to say that we know what happens or to whom, quite.) Then we’re swept into a super-pulpy credit sequence with cheesy video effects that recall this 1970s favorite, the original Don:

A shot of a car tipping, Psycho-like, into a quarry pond yields to snapshot introductions of each member of the gang. There’s Seshadri (Dharmendra), the elder statesmen of this band of goons, whose sentimental attachment to his late wife involves listening repeatedly to a tape of her singing “Mora Gora Ang Laile”  from Bimal Roy’s lovely Bandini--a film that starred the young Dharmendra as a handsome doctor who loves Nutan (playing a woman who has committed a murder in a moment of surrealist madness) but fails to rescue her from her fatal commitment to her tubercular lover.

Zakir Hussain is probably a
perfectly nice man in real life.
There’s Shardul (Zakir Hussain), a hotheaded thug of no fixed moral code—here he’s smarter and more middle-class, but no less terrifying, than the extortionist he played so memorably in Shor in the City. There’s a quiet giant named Shiva who secretly loves the nurse caring for his senile mother (a badly cast actress with horrid old-age makeup is one of the film’s few wrong notes). There’s Prakash (the delightful Vinay Pathak), the owner of a gambling den who is far too fond of the vice he oversees.

And there’s Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh, in an assured debut). This handsome young man seems to his co-conspirators to be a nice Indian boy—he is polite and respectful to the elder gangsters in ways that are familiar from more traditional good-son roles. But Vikram isn’t a boy who has been forced by circumstance or momentary weakness into a life of crime. He has a love of flash and a married girlfriend—married, in fact, to the scary Shardul.

Vikram is sympathetic up to a point, if only because he’s polite and handsome and fond of his cat. (Can you think of another Indian film where a main character has a pet cat that isn’t just supposed to be creepy? I can’t.) But he doesn’t seem to have absorbed the moral lessons of the old Bollywood movies that his life has been steeping in—and he is too in love with himself to recognize that borrowing the name Johnny from Vijay Anand’s Johny Mera Naam (which happens to be playing on television when Vikram needs a fast nom de guerre) doesn’t mean that the bad deeds can be cast off as easily as Dev Anand’s disguises. This kind of selfishness can get a boy in trouble.

Johnny Gaddaar isn’t a whodunit, as we know very early on that Vikram is plotting to steal the other gang members’ share of a big score (instead of being satisfied with his 20% of the free money) so he can abscond to Canada with the girl. His plan is lifted wholesale from Amitabh’s 1971 Parwana, a film we see several characters watching on television. The suspense happens as one thing after another goes badly wrong with the plan, and as Vikram learns that others are onto him. First the young lover kills reluctantly to keep from being found out. But soon he’s slaughtering people in desperation, knowing (as we do) that each murder makes a bad ending for our—what, hero?—a little more likely.

In the end Vikram doesn’t seem significantly less evil than Shardul or the corrupt Inspector Kanyal (Govind Namdeo, whose ability to convey terrible thoughts with one sleepy glance must make him awfully hard to live with). Honor among thieves? No, the other gangsters have all been dispatched—so much for "Yeh Dosti." The least folly-driven and perhaps most moral character does surprise us by seeking vengeance; the cops in the bus turn around and head over to collect the body.

Even this small restoration of order doesn’t restore much—everyone is either dead or about to be packed off to jail, and while we know that the right man has died, we also know that the killer may think otherwise. As the great Nigel Tufnel so memorably said, “It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

Pump the music up a little louder, though, and move your body. Hey, you can dump it into a quarry, or maybe for now you can just stow it behind a couch.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

BANDINI: Sneak peek

I'm working on something longer, and it's August, and I've been out of town. While I try to get the time and willpower and brain-focus to finish that other thing, I'm being reminded of this (just why will become clear when the longer thing comes).

You missed the Ossining Library Bollywood 101 series, but you can still enjoy the promo video! And you can still watch the gorgeous, mesmerizing actress Nutan in the luscious and terribly sad film Bandini through the kindness of strangers--and your video supplier of choice.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

BHAIRAVI: Goodbye to All That

Bhairavi surprises by not being sentimental in the end about the things it seems to start off being sentimental about. Director Aruna Raje’s film is a Bollywood fantasy that makes a sharp turn into  parallel cinema, setting up intriguing questions about what we want, expect, and need from a romantic love story.

Ashwini Bhave (who was apparently considered quite the hottie in the mid-1990s) stars as Ragini, the blind daughter of a well-known classical musician. She and her singing are both beautiful, but this being India, she’s pretty nearly unmarriageable because of her disability. (The question of where this is in India seemed puzzling to me, as the people speak Hindi—not obviously dubbed—but the landscape and clothing look southern. Ah, well; what do I know?)

Her mother dies shortly after a last-ditch suitor turns tail on learning of Ragini’s blindness. And then her father dies in an accident, leaving Ragini alone. Well, not really alone—again, this is India, so the family retainer loyally stays on, doing the cooking and cleaning and putting the needs of her charge over those of her own (grown, greedy) kids. And although Ragini’s mother was pinching pennies at the start of the film, it turns out that the money Maa put aside for Ragini’s wedding festivities, combined with Pitaji’s savings from all the singing, has left their daughter with enough to keep the household running just fine. So Ragini teaches music to children, sits by a waterfall in a rainbow she can’t see, and goes out  on the river in coracles rowed by old fishermen just to enjoy the spinning sensation. The love she experiences is of the fond, not the romantic, variety.

Then along comes Rajan Swamy (Shridhar), a young man who, as a boy, had studied with Ragini’s father. When he learns that the father is dead, he asks Ragini to teach him to sing. And well is he named Swamy, for soon he is teaching her about Love. She resists, but not for long—he’s from a family known to her, and the retainer says he’s handsome. They get married.

This film seems not to have much of an online presence, but this sweet love song from the enjoyable Laxmikant-Pyaarelal score turns up, inevitably with the description “Ashwini Bhave HOT”:

The blissful interlude that follows offers a charming (and rare) filmi glimpse of a honeymoon spent in bed. Nosy auntie-jis storm in, intending to shame the couple for staying shut up in their room in broad daylight; since the couple are unshameable, the aunties end up fleeing with hands over their eyes. Still PG rated, but pretty bold for Bollywood!

A year flies by. One evening Rajan seems withdrawn. Ragini coaxes the truth from him: he has to go away again (he’s some kind of traveling salesman), and for a whole week—not just a day or two, as he apparently does regularly. She’s sorrowful, but she knows that he’ll cut the trip as short as possible, as he also apparently does regularly. He tells her that he’ll buy postcards when he arrives at his destination and send her one every day. She sees him off at the door. And because we’re conditioned to expect that something bad will happen after that setup, we worry along with Ragini when the postcards don’t arrive—and then, after a week and then two, neither does Rajan.

I remember reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child and thinking about how terrible the waiting would be if something had happened to Pa on the prairie or in the big woods. Who would tell the pioneer family, out in the wilderness with no telephone? The not knowing would be terrible. So I felt for Ragini as she waited and worried, unable to contact her beloved. (How cell phones have changed the world—and the plotlines.)

Finally, an uncle goes to Rajan’s office to inquire whether something has happened to him. O-ho, says the office manager pleasantly, were you taken in by that scoundrel too? No, no, the uncle patiently explains. He’s married to my niece. Well, he’s a scoundrel nonetheless, the manager says, and off goes the worried uncle to break the news to Ragini. She shakes her head: there’s a simple explanation. He loves me. He will return.

Conditioned as I am to Bollywood movies where people badmouth Our Hero but Our Heroine remains steadfast, I waited patiently, Ragini-like, for the revelation. But logic niggled at me. Is he dead? Well, why wouldn’t his office know that? Maybe some scoundrel is masquerading as Rajan. Perhaps, but where is the real Rajan in the meantime? Uh-oh, the jewelry is missing. Well, surely Ragini has just mislaid it. I do that all the time, even with the advantage of sight.

The uncle and the loyal retainer are convinced that Rajan has been a louse from the get-go and has taken advantage of the poor blind girl. They insist that Ragini should go to the bank and see whether anything is left of her savings. Indignant, off she goes. And the bank employee says, Oh, dear, I was so worried about letting him cash all those certificates. But you didn’t come in yourself, and he said it was all right. Umm, you still have 150 rupees…. Then Ragini, uncle, and retainer troop off to the police station to report the crime, and Rajan’s name elicits nods of recognition. Yes, that scoundrel! Ragini declines to press charges, and the policemen insinuate that it’s because she’s his wife and knew all about his schemes.

And still I waited for the explanation that would make everything all right. I figured Ragini needed to hit bottom in order to make the happy ending really sing. Come on--when have you ever seen a love song like that one figure in a story with a guy who really did turn out to be a scoundrel? At last, the uncle is told that Rajan has been arrested on one of the many charges leveled against him. Back to the police station goes Ragini to clear up this little misunderstanding. We see Rajan (it’s him, all right) behind bars, yammering on at the unseen copper about how his wife will bail him out because she’s a woman and she loves him and that’s what women do. Of course she’ll take him back. And Ragini enters, unseen by Rajan, and hears exactly what’s what. Ouch.

The simplicity of the explanation makes it hit a little harder. He is a louse. He doesn’t try to pretend that he loves her, or ever loved her. He’s stolen her nest egg. And he still expects to be bailed out.

And finally Ragini's eyes are opened to the truth. Instead of playing the loyal wife, she does what many a Bollywood heroine should have done before her: she tells the rotten husband that he is dead to her, wipes the sindoor from her forehead, and heads for home to start over. We see her, widow-like, handing her sarees out one by one to beggars along the path. The end of the romance really has the feel of a death scene—deliberate and wrenching.

The film concludes with one final scene of Ragini singing onstage before a rapt audience, intercut with shots of our heroine in the coracle, asking the fisherman to row her out into the river once again as in the old days. The song she's singing says, “The boat escapes the maelstrom.” The coracle goes with purpose, not spinning in circles, to the middle of the river, where Ragini solemnly removes her wedding necklace and sets it floating away on a lotus leaf. The crowd wah-wahs appreciatively.

I guess Ashwini Bhave closing the door on romance for good and all isn’t hot enough for YouTube, because nobody seems to have posted this song. Thwarting the romance-seekers among us, though, seems to be part of the movie's grand plan. Like its heroine, Bhairavi works to turn heartbreak into art.

Friday, July 27, 2012

SHOLAY: Endings

Sholay, Amitabh Bachchan
I hadn’t seen Sholay for about three years when a group of us watched it again last Saturday night. In 2009, I watched with a slightly skeptical audience who seemed to expect India’s most famous film to solidify their impression of Bollywood (“It’s very long, isn’t it?” was the most repeated comment). And I was ready for a few draggy bits on this re-viewing.

But there really aren’t many (well, apart from the jailer scenes—and there I may have been influenced by an even earlier showing during which my Ohioan father-in-law just couldn’t handle a side of over-the-top comedy with his brutal western). From the horseback bandits’ attack on the train to the massacre of the Thakur’s family, from Jai and Veeru’s bravado to Gabbar’s “kitne admi” scene, from Basanti’s blither to Radha’s silence, everything about this film—the story, the characters, the landscape, the actors, the angles, the stunts, the songs—seems to have been touched by genius. By the end my emotions had undergone some serious dhishoom-dhishoom.

So how did it end?

Sanjeev Kumar, Sholay
PTSD Thakur Baldev Singh
For several years I’ve always chosen the Sippys’ original ending, the one the censors didn’t want audiences to see, in which the armless Thakur kills Gabbar after whupping him mercilessly with those iron-spiked shoes. But after re-watching the censor-imposed ending, I was moved by the police officer’s appeal to the Thakur’s reputation as an honorable cop. I appreciated the film’s call to look beyond our collective lust for vengeance, to acknowledge the Thakur’s loss without approving his taking the law into his own hands sidestepping of the law. How refreshing to think that doing the right thing might mean not doing what Gabbar himself would do if, uh, the shoe were on the other foot. I think I'll stick with this ending from now on.

And for my oldest friend, Brenda, who died this week after a terrible illness, here's "Yeh Dosti." I'm pretty sure she never stole a motorcycle--but knowing her made my life much richer anyway. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

SESH SANGHAT: Not Exactly Ageless

sesh sanghat, shesh sanghat, jaya prada, jayapradha
Still attractive, but SO not 23.

The next time someone tries to tell me how superior Bengali cinema is to mainstream Hindi cinema, I will say two words: Sesh Sanghat.

This film left me with one burning question: Who decided to cast Jaya Prada (who by my calculations was 47 at the time of the film’s release) as a 23-year-old? My guess is that the simple answer is this: Jaya Prada produced the film. 

The story of the young village girl, Raji, might have been effective if handled differently. She is singled out to work in evil Ramanuj Pratap’s household because he develops designs on her when he spots her while he's driving around in his luxe car. The young actress who plays Raji at age 15 is believable, and the dynamic among the women in the household--the aging, infertile first wife, the second "wife" who also arrived as a maid at 15 and bore the zamindar's child, and the helpless new arrival--is intriguing enough to support a film of its own. But that's not what this film is about. 

Raji is raped by the zamindar and becomes pregnant, runs away to her parents' house to have the baby, comes with her whole family to confront Ramanuj, and ends up attacked in the jungle and left for dead by the zamindar's thugs. A couple find her and bring her to their home to recuperate. But then the young actress's part is finished, and we flash forward a bit to see Raji as Jaya Prada. I thought, “Wow, interesting choice to focus on this character as a considerably older woman—not what I expected.” But then I realized that only seven years had passed and that the character is supposed to be a young adult, not a middle-aged woman. Every man who lays eyes on her asks for her hand in marriage. Not to be ageist—would that it were true that 47-year-old women were the standard of desirability! But this clunky casting made it hard to buy anything that happened thereafter.

Ashish Vidyarthi, Jaya Prada
Will no one stop him?
And then there's the bad guy--and the men who not only don't step up but are often actively complicit in the abuse. I certainly do recognize that there are men like Ramanuj (Ashish Vidyarthi, the gangster from Is Raat ki Subah Nahin) who think of women as less than human. (And can I just say that a Google search to jog my memory of Bollywood films with similar storylines resulted in way too many hits with the descriptor "HOT + SEXY," ewww ewwww EWWWWWW.) But when Raji meets Ramanuj again after that seven-year gap, the whole male population of the village where this woman has lived for years just stands around laughing as Ramanuj beats her, strips her naked, pours gasoline on her, and prepares to burn her alive. Nobody objects to or even looks unamused by this? Say it ain’t so. 

Immediately after the attempted involuntary sati, the rebel leader who sees Raji being dragged off by two armed men tells her, the way you do, that she has hands and that if she can't free herself, she deserves to die. The music swells so that you know Raji's summoning her inner Schwarzenegger; she flexes her arms in slow-mo, and with one thwaaannng the thugs gripping her go flying off in opposite directions. Ohh-kayyyy. We've moved into a whole different movie.

Not a reflection on Jaya Prada personally; it would be a major stretch for any actress to go from village belle to action star to revolutionary leader. She has said that this film was her "gift to the people of Bengal." It's difficult to imagine the occasion for which such a gift would be appropriate....

Jaya Prada, Jayapradha
Action-figure Jaya Prada.
Jackie Shroff doesn’t fare terribly well either, looking more like a Madame Tussaud’s version of himself with every film. But at least he isn’t running around the jungle wielding a machine gun in dressy heels, struggling visibly to do the physical work needed to bust out of jail (we see Jaya for a painfully long period ostensibly doing a hand-over-hand haul up a knotted rope, clearly not getting anywhere, as her fellow Naxalites politely try to help her over the wall). And at least Jackie isn’t taking repeated tentative nibbles at a hand-grenade pin as if afraid of chipping a tooth, as Jaya does in another scene that looks as if it’s a first take she expected to end up on the cutting-room floor. (It didn’t.) 

So what on earth was director Ashoke Viswanathan thinking in including those clumsy shots? Was he unaware of (or indifferent to) the fact that including them makes both director and star look bad? Probably, since these are but two of the many clunky action scenes--with and without Jaya--that bring the excitement to a halt and have the peculiar effect of focusing our attention on how unbelievable it all is.

I can’t address the political questions to which the film alludes other than to wonder why we’re supposed to be aghast at some casual atrocities and supportive of others (the last thing we see of Ramanuj—admittedly a very bad man—is the villagers preparing to burn him alive as he slowly strangles from a tree limb, which strikes me as a sign that the justice system is not working with optimal effectiveness). I agree that it's not right for one man to have final say over the lives of dozens of villagers, or complete control over mineral-rich land that provides subsistence to those people. I agree that corrupt politicians and police officers are bad for everyone. I also object to beating children to death (which happens in Sesh Sanghat) and to being mean to puppies (which fortunately doesn't). 

Oddly, I can find no mention of this title on the IMDb at all—not in Jaya Prada’s entries, not in Jackie Shroff’s, not in Ashish Vidyarthi’s, not in Ashoke Viswanathan’s. Hmmm. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing. I’m sure I must have dreamed the scene in which Ramanuj is relaxing at home reading a magazine called Women’s Era.

On the plus side, Bappi Lahiri’s music is decent, and there’s an item number with some enjoyable faux-tribal dancing around a giant drum. But if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re better off sticking with Chandralekha. Let me save you the trouble and just point you toward this fine number that doesn't pretend to be anything other than sixty-odd years old.

Friday, July 13, 2012

JAI SANTOSHI MAA: Satisfaction

Jai Santoshi Maa
Box art: These are the keeper stills?
You don’t have to be a believer to fall for Jai Santoshi Maa, the low-budget mythological epic that held its own at the box office in 1975 during the reign of Sholay. Anyone who has ever felt like a persecuted underdog can relate to the story. Trapped in a house full of spiteful relations who treat you like a servant? Well, perhaps some personal attention from a magical beyond can convince you that life is pretty good after all. It worked for Harry Potter.

Of course, Harry has tangible evidence of that magical beyond starting at the age of eleven. But Satyawati, our heroine and the true believer of Jai Santoshi Maa, has nothing but her unshakeable faith that the goddess Santoshi will solve her problems if Satyawati worships with sufficient devotion.

You can probably see where this is going. Obviously, in order for Santoshi to reward Satyawati in the most satisfying possible manner, Satyawati must first suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—the more outrageous the better.

Jai Santoshi Maa takes place simultaneously in heaven among the Hindu gods and on earth in a timeless, filmi version of India. In heaven, Santoshi is the wished-for sister conjured up by Ganesha’s sons; on earth, the motherless Satyawati (Kanan Kaushal) ardently worships the goddess. First Satyawati wishes for a husband, and she falls for the handsome flute-playing Birju (Ashish Kumar) when she meets him once in passing. When he is summoned to play and sing at a temple ceremony honoring Santoshi, she sees that Birju is truly the man for her.

He admires her from afar. But on the way home from the ceremony, Satyawati is jumped by a dreadful dacoit and his leering gang (in a very creepy scene that drives home what life must be like for many a rural Indian girl whose back isn't being omnisciently watched). Birju saves her in the nick of time, and then it’s clear to both of them that they have already spent many lifetimes together.

Bela Bose, Jai Santoshi Maa
Bela Bose is up to something.
In short order Satyawati and Birju are married. Obviously, all can’t continue to go smoothly—if it did, would there be a movie? The troubles come when the other sisters-in-law begin to dump all over both Birju (who wants to play music, not work in the fields) and Satyawati. The leading evil bhabhi is played by the addictively enjoyable Bela Bose, a dancer with a fabulously expressive face who does one of the best sneer-hmmph! combinations I’ve ever seen. (And apparently she had a long career, hooray! Perhaps there is a god after all….) The women laugh at Birju! They want him to earn a living! They feed him… gasp… leftovers!

leftovers, Ashish Kumar, Jai Santoshi Maa
Meanwhile, in heaven, the Big Three goddesses Laxmi, Durga, and Brahmini become jealous of the attention Santoshi is getting from Satyawati. They determine to make Satyawati’s life perfectly miserable and force her to renounce her devotion to Santoshi. To that end, the goddesses ensure that the sisters-in-law drive Birju out of the house (by means of the aforementioned leftovers, which suggests that I’ve been shockingly insulted over and over again since childhood without knowing it), then raise a storm that nearly drowns him as he travels around looking for work, then give him amnesia so that he forgets Satyawati—waiting patiently at home enduring terrible abuse and poverty—and starts to fall for another woman.

You’d think that Santoshi might take up arms against Satywati’s sea of troubles somewhat earlier in the game since the goddess is herself the object of jealousy and derision in heaven. It’s as if the devi and her devotee were new girls in parallel high schools populated by mean girls, and we wait—as in life—for the cruel ones to get their richly deserved comeuppance. But the goddess bides her time, and so things go from bad to worse for her loyal follower. Finally, Satyawati, whose long fasts have given her raccoon eyes like an Edward Gorey flapper, is so downtrodden that she can’t even buy the grams and jaggery necessary for her final Santoshi puja. Santoshi comes to earth in the guise of an old woman (clang! go the cymbals as she is edited abruptly into the scene) and presents weeping, starving Satyawati with the offering.

The film isn’t finished with us yet, even though Birju returns (now rich, having learned the jeweler’s trade and apparently forgotten his wish to be a musician) and Satyawati becomes the luxuriously dressed wife of a prosperous independent household. The mean-goddess triumvirate and the odious bhabhis—now jealous of Satyawati’s good fortune, because it’s always something—are still hoping to get the last word. They get their chance when Satyawati invites everyone to a big celebration in honor of Santoshi. (Check out Bela Bose here, pretending she’s joining in wholeheartedly—but noooo!)

Bela Bose and her henchwoman sneak off and squeeze limes into the food (a no-no for a Santoshi puja, apparently), which causes all the children eating at the festival to drop dead (!!!). The families blame Satyawati—her anger at her mistreatment, they claim, caused her to poison the children of her former tormentors—and things look blacker than ever before in Satyawati’s gloomy life until FINALLY Santoshi puts in a personal appearance, resurrects the dead kids, makes the guilty bhabhis confess, and sets the throng of onlookers cheering her power and her devotee’s spotless perfection. In heaven, the mean goddesses apologize for their misdeeds. All is again right with the world.

Jai Santoshi Maa, It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart
Can't get no satisfaction.
How appropriate that Santoshi means “satisfaction.” My goodness, who wouldn’t find it satisfying to see physical proof of the deity’s existence and the smiting of a bunch of baddies all rolled up in one? As when Clarence the bumbling angel saves George Bailey* from his Christmas Eve plunge into the river in Bedford Falls, we root for the heavens to pay attention and the good to be rewarded, however unlikely the prospect seems in the face of so much opposition. Hello, you beautiful old Savings and Loan! Goodbye, Potterville! (Not you, Harry. Different Mr. Potter.)

It’s said that Santoshi was but a minor goddess before this film stormed the box office, but fans (many of them women who presumably found that this story spoke to them in ways that Sholay and Deewaar didn’t) treated the theaters as temples and bowed before the onscreen goddess, which was enough to move her to a more important place in the pantheon. I love when religion bends to the will of humans instead of the other way around.

As Real as the Velveteen Rabbit.
*Or if we’re definitely talking magic and not religion, we might note similarities with another great Jimmy Stewart movie, in which we are exceedingly gratified to learn that Ellwood P. Dowd isn’t just imagining that an invisible giant rabbit has chosen to be his friend. Harvey or Hagrid, Clarence Odbody or Santoshi Maa—I don’t have to believe any of them are real for them to bring me great joy and satisfaction. Ahhh.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Nirmal Pandey, Ashish Vidyarthi
In the past couple of weeks I’ve watched several films about the Mumbai underworld that I had never heard of before: Waisa Bhi Hota Hai (about which much more here), Ram Gopal Varma’s Shiva, and now Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996).

The three films all share a kind of tonal dissonance that sometimes works (i.e., Waisa Bhi’s scary yet endearing Gangu Tai and Vishnu) and sometimes doesn’t. RGV’s Shiva, for instance, suffers from incomprehensible casting: there’s the more or less realistic Shiva (Mohit Ahlawat), who struck me as believably upright, even when smiting a cafĂ© full of baddies Amitabh-style, but as far less believably in love with Nisha Kothari, about whose lip-quivering impersonation of every feeling—desire, fear, righteous indignation—the less said the better. And then there’s the cartoonish don-turned-politician Bappu (Upendra Limaye), who seems to have been plucked up, like Dorothy in the tornado, from an altogether different movie.

Sudhir Mishra, the director of Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (“Tonight There Will Be No Morning”) and a star and co-creator of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro,  has a cast full of intriguing actors. Nirmal Pandey, who was very likeable as the only man worthy of Phoolan Devi’s love in Bandit Queen, is the antihero Aditya; I admit that had I been doing the hair and makeup I would have toned down the Fabio impression, but the long-haired-yet-buttoned-down look he sports here works for the cheating ad man that Aditya turns out to be. The other lead, the conflicted don Ramanbhai, is Ashish Vidyarthi, who was affecting as the mute Ratan in Naajayaz, another film featuring a regretful gangster; here is the excellent song "Barsaat Ke Mausam Mein" from that film, in which Ashish Vidyarthi is seen holding the umbrella over Naseeruddin Shah’s head:

Like Waisa Bhi Hota Hai, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin has as its ostensible hero a temporarily homeless advertising exec whose chance encounter with the underworld results in a life-changing experience. Aditya has been booted out of his apartment by his wife, Pooja (Tara Deshpande), who has just discovered his affair with the singer played by Smriti Mishra (who was also the young Sardari Begum the same year). Aditya is monopolizing the phone at a bar by repeatedly calling Pooja to explain himself—she keeps hanging up—when he becomes irritated that a young hothead is interrupting him, wanting to make a call.* The angry youngster turns out to be Chhotu, the youngest member of kingpin Ramanbhai’s gang (and Raman’s little sister’s boyfriend), and when Raman steps in to stop the boy from fighting with Aditya, Raman himself intercepts the tight slap that Aditya has intended for Chhotu.

Ashish Vidyarthi
I didn't say nice, I said honorable.
By this point in the film we already know that Raman is reasonably honorable, as kingpins go; he’s a man who values hard work and treats his gang like family (with the good and bad that that implies). We’ve watched him take the time for a heart-to-heart with his right-hand man Vilas (Saurabh Shukla)—whose supposed disloyalty Raman had planned to punish with death—and we know that as a result of Raman's patience, he has learned that Vilas remains true and can be spared. We know, too, that Chhotu, in a panic, has accidentally killed Vilas’s wife, turning Vilas’s imagined disloyalty into the real thing. Raman regrets the killing and the loss of his brotherly relationship with Vilas. But Chhotu is family, too, and Raman stands by him.

And we get the sense that Ramanbhai would agree that Chhotu could use a little smackdown. In fact, it seems that Raman would laugh off Aditya’s slap—an insult clearly intended for someone else—were it not for the fact that another kingpen’s henchmen are also in the bar, watching the events and waiting for Raman to respond with vigor. (Does anyone ever apologize for misdirected slap-administration? Just wondering.) So instead Raman has to uphold his honor conspicuously—and that means that Aditya must now become his target.

As the title implies, the film takes place over the course of a single night. During the eventful hours of darkness, Vilas will stalk Raman, accompanied by a stranger unhinged by a wife’s suicide; Raman and his men will stalk Aditya and his upset wife all over Mumbai; Aditya will try to protect Pooja, which means asking the mistress to house the wife for a few hours and also breaking the mistress’s heart; and a corrupt police inspector will stalk all the gangsters while taking bribes from them on the side.

Good guys?
Meanwhile,  the gangsters envy the “tip-top” material goods of middle-class office workers like Aditya and his boss, knowing that they will never have such luxury. Aditya, on the other hand, has everything—a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, a beautiful wife, money—but he lies and cheats, and heartbreak is clearly in store for one or both of the women in his life. He’s not making a living from smuggling, but he’s not exactly a role model.

A climactic encounter in a trainyard squares Ramanbhai against Aditya, and the film seems to leave somewhat open the question of which is the more honorable man--or perhaps just the less dishonorable one. But the final wrapup surprised me by suggesting that we’d known who to root for all along. Or perhaps Sudhir Mishra is simply saying that we’ve known all along what sort of person must win when old-school gangsters face off against modern ad executives.

Either way, there are probably more questions than answers left at the end. And the film closes with the same question that it opens with: “What is life?” As the lyrics tell us, nobody knows, and anyone who finds the answer regrets it.

*I couldn’t help thinking that in just a couple of years, Aditya would have a mobile phone, eliminating this plot point for good and all. Then again, cell phones don’t necessarily mean an end to trouble with gangsters--or with girls named Pooja. Just ask these guys.

Friday, June 29, 2012

LAALCHEE: The Rich Are Different from You and Me

Pran, Laalchee, Lalchee, Rohit RoyLaalchee (“greed”) sounds like a fable. If you search for “laalchee” on Google, as I did, you’ll come up with YouTube videos for this film, and also for several versions of the Aesop-ish Hindi story “Laalchee Kutta” (“The Greedy Dog”). So I was expecting, if not in-depth characterizations, then at least moral clarity.

So who can tell me the moral of this story? Anyone? Anyone?

Is it that being rich means that you can be any damn thing you please, including a leering old lech or a puppetmaster who makes the less wealthy dance for your amusement?

Is it that excesses of money make you treat women like personal playthings, even if they’re not interested in you?

Is it that being rich means that people assume you know what you're doing?

Pran's haveli,
or a reasonable approximation thereof.
Pran is Dinanath, a wheelchair-bound business tycoon living in one of those havelis with an entrance that resembles the driveway at Embassy Suites.

His four younger brothers and four sisters-in-law come to care for the ailing kazillionaire, but he pines for his missing nephew Amar, whose father—another brother—went off in a huff fifteen years earlier, apparently because he didn’t approve of Pran’s shenanigans with the ladies. The brothers and bhabhis surround the lonely invalid with chatter and children, planning picnics and doing what seems like a pretty good job of filling his empty mansion and life. Then along comes the sexy Kamini, a nurse much given to halter tops and short skirts (well is she nicknamed “Mini”). And seeing that she’s sleeping in his room,  that he’s spending ungodly amounts of dough on clothes that consist of little actual cloth, and that he’s dropping broad hints about marriage, the family members begin to worry about whether there will be any inheritance left for them.

Can you really blame them? You don’t have to be motivated by greed to think that perhaps your older brother has…slipped a bit when he’s spending all his time and money on a permed bimbo who pouts and coos and does the sexy-dance [1990s Bollywood version] in the old man’s room at night while the younger brothers spy through the window.

It’s just not dignified. I don’t know what I would do if my big brother began to behave this way*, but I hope I would try to talk some sense into him.

So naturally what the family members do is this: they hire an actor (a well-scrubbed, smiling Rohit Roy) to impersonate the lost and much-missed Amar. And Faux-Amar takes the job and runs with it so effectively that soon Pran is handing him suitcases of money, forgiving and blessing even when the actor is caught red-handed trying to sell the gold chain he swiped from Pran’s bedside table.

I had moments of enjoyment, even moments of surprise, when I thought to myself: How will this character, who I know must be the good guy in the end, overcome our distaste at what is patently not good behavior? Is the filmmaker actually going to create a complex character, a real person with real shades of gray?

Sadly, the answer is no. The key to the metamorphosis is that the scriptwriters (Anil Kalelkar and Anand Vardhan, who seem to have disappeared without a trace) just let the cardboard Good Girlfriend (Karina Grover, but really, who cares)—the one Faux-Amar is saving up to marry—act as a sort of external conscience. She shames the lazy, manipulative, greedy chor into becoming the morally upright boy that his sweet smile and effortless charm have destined him to be. Yawn. And ultimately, Faux-Amar doesn’t have to be a good guy from the get-go; he just has to reach good-guy status before the brothers-and-bhabhis do.

And that turns out to be a ridiculously easy task. Pran reveals that he’s revising his will to give Amar a share, and everyone goes bonkers. Then the scheming Mini, who has been tossed from the house because Faux-Amar noticed that she had a boyfriend on the side, presents a mystery document to Pran. Pran’s lawyer nods grimly and explains that Mini and her beau now control the money, the business, and the Embassy Suites. Yes, just because. Now Pran is penniless! But he can stay with his family, right? No, because then they all line up to tell him that they never liked him anyway and that if there’s no inheritance, then to them he is nothing, nothing!

A much better movie than Laalchee.
Faux-Amar rescues Pran from the sort of old folks’ home where sons won’t even give their institutionalized dads money for a new pair of glasses. (If this entire nursing home weren’t on the ground floor, Munna Bhai would be hanging these guys upside down from windows.) Fortuitously, Faux-Amar has used the suitcase full of money to buy an apartment, and he and the Good-Girlfriend-turned-Dutiful-Wife give it to Pran. Homelessness averted, whew. But suddenly, Mini vamps in and claims the apartment too! Boo, hiss! Nahiiiiiiinn!

Oh, wait—it’s all a ruse. Like Faux-Amar, Mini is also a hireling, brought on board by Pran to prove his suspicions about his family’s greed. You’ll be relieved to know that Pran is still rich. (He doesn’t even need the prop wheelchair any longer.) And Faux-Amar’s reserves of goodness, which once revealed prove to be clear and deep and true, mean that he deserves to end up owning the Suites. And so he does.

Amar before Pran loves him.
What, you thought the Real Amar would appear? Me too. This may be the first time I’ve seen a Lost Son/Divided Brothers story that didn’t end with some kind of reunion. But I credit this to scriptwriter laziness. I think the writers, having invented the Famous Original Amar to serve the plot, then forgot about him once Faux-Amar had discovered that love could turn him as real as the Velveteen Rabbit.

Maybe I should give the screenwriters more credit for their exceptionally apt prediction of the 2012 Republican field. But the inter-familial tribulations of the super-rich were no more interesting in 1997 than they have been since. Let's hope that we don't have to pretend to be the long-lost nephew of a rich guy to start feeling real compassion for one another.

*Which my brother would not; this would strike him as just as much of an affront to his dignity as drinking a can of Bud Lite—and he has informed me that if I ever see him doing that, I should know that he has been kidnapped and is signalling desperately for help.