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.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

ROCKSTAR: Janardhan Strange & Mr. Normal

rockstar, ranbir kapoor, nargis fakhri
Don’t let the title fool you; Rockstar is about neither rock nor stardom. The hero is a musician, and he does become a star, but that is immaterial. Instead, this is a capital-L Love Story. It’s Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene and big finish in Verona. It’s the Punjabi romantic tragedy of Heer and Ranjha (lest you miss that connection, the heroine’s name is Heer). And it’s a fairy tale, one of the darker ones where the fairies are jealous taskmasters, the princess can’t stop dancing, and the happily-ever-after fails to materialize.

And as with any big, sweeping love story, you can jeer or you can let the story wash you away. Maybe it’s just a matter of the mood you’re in when you watch. Plausible? No, not in the slightest. Effective? Well, if you’re up for it, yes.

Love doesn’t sneak up and catch Janardhan (Ranbir Kapoor) unawares. It doesn’t happen gradually, either—instead, he goes looking for it, having heard that its wondrous power will transform him into a better musician. He says that’s what he wants, but he’s young and shallow and doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about much of anything.

Janardhan is like a visitor from another world trying to imitate earthling habits. The other boys at his college call Heer (Nargis Fakhri) a “heartbreaker,” so he watches her intently for a while and then marches off to tell her he’s smitten. Secretly, he hopes she’ll hurt him enough to give him some depth.

She’s beautiful, popular, and engaged to be married. He’s a nobody with a dorky haircut and an awkward posture. He’s persistent, almost stalker-ish, in his pursuit of the broken heart to which the girl is only incidentally attached. And finally she tells him off, so he stops.

And then they rather sweetly become friends. He manages to relax around her and discovers that she’s not the “neat and clean” stereotype he had imagined. Heer awakens, maybe for the first time, some kind of genuine feeling in him—they get to know each other and like what they find. She lists things she wants to do before she gets married, as if marriage is the end of her life. And then she does get married (in what Wikipedia breathlessly tells us is “the first time in Bollywood that a Kashmiri Pandit wedding was shown”), and from there the movie is all about Janardhan—now Jordan—doing his utmost to rescue Heer from that fate.

He becomes a successful musician, travels to Prague (Heer is living there, because Movie Logic)—and then one day he happens on a band of Czech-gypsies-as-imagined-by-Bollywood-filmmakers and finally discovers what kind of a story he’s in:

The lyrics tell of a princess who wears out twelve pairs of shoes in her sleep each night; the young man who seeks to solve the mystery discovers that the wind whirls her off to go dancing. And when I had seen this song, everything suddenly fell into place for me: I now expected not The Doors, but a big, impossible fairy story.

Jordan gets acclaim and vast wealth; Ranbir, descended from Bollywood royalty, looks utterly believable as a rock star*. (The music, from the man known in India as “Oscar winner A.R. Rahman,” works with the swelling emotional peaks of the story, but never remotely resembles rock. Tellingly, at one point Jordan performs before a wowed Euro-crowd so aged and prosperous that it looks like a Kennedy Center command performance.) And Jordan gets the girl. Although Heer’s husband can safely be ignored, apparently being made of the kind of plastic that comes with an unlimited credit line, the lovers find their infidelity searing—she because she's a nice Indian girl, and he because he realizes that he’s the one who whirls Heer off to go dancing night after night.

Lymphosarcoma of the intestines?
It makes him a little crazy, and he attracts paparazzi and a bad-boy rep. But fairyland’s demands on the lady are more stringent, and Heer’s secret makes her mysteriously sick. Doctors confirm that she’s wasting away from a filmi disease. She is dying—but when Jordan touches her, she revives. If only he could hang on forever! But he has to perform (he is constantly threatened with arrest for failing to show up for contractually obligated concerts, as if Ticketmaster ran the world). When the police come to drag Jordan from Heer’s hospital bed, he admits to his mentor—the man who told him that great artists need pain—that he would gladly give up his broken heart and all that it has brought.

And yes, snark-worthy as the plot is, I was totally buying it at this point. Ranbir is a very fine actor, Nargis Fakhri is lovely, and together they make sparks fly. Maybe it's soapy, but it's also operatic--and I know that if the dancing lady spends too much time in Fairyland, of course she must die. [Spoiler alert: Juliet and Heer don’t fare so well themselves.]

Heer and Jordan,
an artist's interpretation
But then… what? I confess that I'm still not certain of Jordan’s fate. He’s performing in Verona when an apparition of Heer walks toward him to say farewell, and the film just… ends. There’s an onscreen scribble about the lovers being together in the fields of forever someday that is Karan Johar-esque (or Jack Handey-esque, depending on the depths of your resistance to this sort of thing). What? No, I want specifics. In fact, I felt a little cheated that director Imtiaz Ali didn’t give me a full-on Romeo/Ranjha moment of Jordan racing heedlessly toward death because his beloved is gone.

But I guess the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair, soulless though he may be, has the consolation of knowing that the lady will twirl with him in the fairy ballroom through all eternity.

*Nobody asked me, but rock star is two words. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

WAISA BHI HOTA HAI: Getting Involved

waisa bhi hota hai, arshad warsi, prasanth narayanan, pratima kazmi
Waisa Bhi Hota Hai has a lot going for it, like very assured performances, a solid script, and credits that thank “Q. Tarantino, E. Coen, J. Coen,” and other indie heroes. It’s smart and funny, and--as you’d expect with inspiration like that--dotted with bursts of pretty savage violence.

Arshad Warsi--who first played Munna Bhai’s underling Circuit in Munna Bhai MBBS the same year, 2003--is Punit Sanyal, the creative director of an advertising company who hates his job and his boss. He flirts with his coworker Sumi, but he’s living with a cute policewoman named Agni (Sandhya Mrinal). In truth, both our hero and writer/director Shashanka Ghosh seem more interested in the idea of a copywriter who loves a policewoman than in the actual relationship between Punit and Agni, and she proves to be not much more than kohl-wearing, pixie-haired machinery to move the plot along—but I cut Shashanka Ghosh some slack for the one great female role he has given us, a bloodthirsty yet matriarchal don named Ganga (Pratima Kazmi) whose aim is to take over the Mumbai underworld.

But we’ll get to her in a minute. First, Agni gets the story going by throwing Punit out (because, um, he didn’t tell her about his estranged brother? Or something. Whatever…). He’s drunk on a bench somewhere when a gang of shooters opens fire on Vishnu (Prasanth Narayanan). Vishnu crawls over to die near the bench, not seeing its occupant, and Punit gets up to sneak away unnoticed. But Vishnu opens his eyes and gives the copywriter the same advice Punit has just been giving himself: Get out of here! Don’t get involved! And then Punit can’t stop himself. He must save the gangster, who in exchange offers Punit a very swell Mumbai flat and, eventually, his friendship and trust.

pratima kazmi
Give Ganga your oongli like a good goonda.
Vishnu is the hired killer for Ganpat, the boss of Mumbai and the man that Ganga is desperate to unseat. Neither don is the sharpest knife in the drawer (heh--Ganga loves to tell her gang stories of Japanese gangsters who, in shame over a failure, cut off a finger as a gift for their boss, and she makes her boys play the same game).  But both are absolute in their commitment to killing anyone who gets in their way, and the bodies pile up.

Prasanth Narayanan
Prasanth shows us his gun.
It doesn’t take Punit long to be dragged into Vishnu’s activities. The copywriter professes to admire the shooter and his colleagues, comparing them to bankers who have the same cold way of bringing about someone else’s ruin without feeling strongly about it. (Tell us about it, advertising man.) And Vishnu is, as gangsters go, a handsome, smart, decent, old-fashioned fellow who is never more flustered than when Punit’s sexy colleague Suni asks him for his number. He’s so old-fashioned that he only goes to one brothel, where he always sees the same woman, who gives him the same advice Punit begins to give: Get out of the business! Don't get involved!

There’s more, much more. Let’s see: Punit’s estranged brother (remember him?) was a gangster  who informed on Ganpat and was therefore killed by Vishnu; everyone finds out this crucial piece of information before Punit knows it, so Vishnu is sent to kill Punit, and another shooter is sent to make sure Vishnu follows through, and Punit and Vishnu meet on the beach where singer Kailash Kher, appearing as himself, sings this terrific song:

And then Kailash gets shot dead (hey, it’s fiction! he's FINE!) and Punit gets kidnapped by Ganga’s dopey but deadly boys because she thinks he’s suckering Vishnu into friendship so he can get revenge, and Punit tries to escape and warn Vishnu by pretending that he has to give a speech, which he gives in English so Ganga and the boys won’t understand. Ha! Oh, and Agni rounds up Ganga’s gang and humiliates her during the perp walk, which makes us hate Agni just a bit even though we know that Ganga is really not a nice person at all. And from there the story becomes complicated....

Soon enough most of these characters are dead, and the rest are getting an appropriate comeuppance (good or bad, more or less as is their karmic due), some at the hands of a group of Sikh rappers. I won’t say any more; I’ve already told you too much.

I had no idea films with this kind of street-smart indie cred were being made in Mumbai all the way back in 2003. (OK, realistic savage violence was already happening, thanks to my close personal friend the director Ram Gopal Varma* and my boon companion the screenwriter Anurag Kashyap, who together gave us Satya in 1998, but face it, that wasn’t really very funny.) Waisa Bhi Hota Hai may not hang together perfectly--in fact, I didn't much care whether Agni ended up happy or dead, and I suppose that's a problem--but the core relationship between Punit and Vishnu has real emotional resonance, the bad guys aren't just pretending, and Ganga? Ganga is totally rocking, yaar! If she wanted me to cut off my finger, why, I would launch into the most affecting speech you ever heard. In English.

Mike Enright photo
Red-faced and sweaty: good look for me?
*No, really, I did actually meet RGV once. (Photo by Mike Enright.) He asked me what Hindi film I had seen most recently, and I answered (truthfully) Salaam-e-Ishq. When he asked what I thought of it, I told him that I liked Govinda in it. As the words crossed my lips, I knew that I was totally blowing any chance that he could ever respect me. Now I can admit to myself that sometimes Salman is phoning it in and that big Indian musicals can be every bit as crappy as films from everywhere else. But at the time I was still in thrall to ***Bollywood*** the way the French love Jerry Lewis and the Germans love David Hasselhoff. Oh, well--RGV himself hasn’t proved to be infallible; we were on the set of Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag at the time….

Saturday, June 9, 2012

NANHE JAISALMER: You Like Me! You Really Like Me!

Nanhe Jaisalmer, Bobby Deol, Bollywood
Spoiler alert. If you want to see Nanhe Jaisalmer and don’t want the surprise ruined at the end, stop reading now. Oh, did you want to avoid knowing that there is a surprise at the end? Stop two sentences ago.

Nanhe (Dwij Yadav) is a too-cute ten-year-old camel-safari operator in Jaisalmer who supposedly speaks four languages (although we never actually hear him speak anything but Hindi and English). Everyone in Jaisalmer loves him. The tourists love him. But he can’t read and write. Fortunately, many older, wiser people in Jaisalmer make him aware of how important literacy is. There are his neighbors and friends, including the actor I think of as that square-jawed, wild-eyed guy from Lagaan. (No disrespect; I love that guy.) There’s Nanhe’s sister, who knows how much illiteracy has cost their family—and who has therefore been diligent in her studies. There’s Madamji, who teaches the night school where little Nanhe is the only non-adult student.

Rajesh Vivek
I heart Rajesh Vivek!
And there’s Bobby Deol, playing “Bobby Deol” during the High Perm era. Bobby once shot a movie in Jaisalmer and met little Nanhe, and the boy has been fan-mailing him ever since, signing a thumbprint on the letters his sister writes. Now Bobby’s coming back to town for a new shoot, and Nanhe expects their shared history to result in a friendship for the ages. And lo, it comes to pass! Bobby appears, and he waits patiently for Nanhe night after night by the picturesque Jaisalmer pool. He sneaks into Nanhe’s room and has heart-to-hearts.

If you were the kind of child who spent dreary middle-school years imagining that your favorite star would love you without question if s/he only knew you, then you may find that the Bobby-Nanhe relationship is exactly like the friendship you once dreamed of. But assuming that you’re no longer in middle school, you have probably recovered from your desire to be a celebrity’s bosom friend. (Anyway, I have.) So I have to say that l was relieved at the end to learn that [SPOILER SPOILER] Bobby has been a figment of little Nanhe’s imagination all along.

Mick as he was
It’s all about literacy, of course, and so there’s a message. Stay in school! Also, if you can imagine it, you can make your dreams come true! At the end, little Nanhe has grown up to be the author everyone was lining up to meet in the bookstore in the opening scene, and he’s such a huge big deal that the actual, non-fictional Bobby Deol, who hasn't aged a day, turns up at his book-signing. Maybe if I keep writing this blog, I’ll be doing some public appearance someday and Mick Jagger (looking like he did when I was in middle school) will swan in, dying to meet me. And everyone from my home town will be super-impressed.

[NOTE: In the U.S. we tend to assume that people of various generations will stick with their own kind except when forcibly thrown together at family or work functions, which is sad, actually. So I’m wondering if I have a built-in cultural bias against child/adult friendships and if the Nanhe/Bobby dost-fest may seem quite charming to those more organically connected to Indian culture—or those with a higher tolerance for child-star-adorable ten-year-olds. In all fairness, as a middle-aged U.S.-born person of lack of color who has been able to read and write since childhood, I am so not the target audience for this movie.]

Friday, June 8, 2012


The New York Indian Film Festival provided a sneak peek at Part 1 of Anurag Kashyap’s forthcoming release Gangs of Wasseypur. Audiences at Cannes saw it as a two-part, five-hour film edited down from an eight-hour first cut.

Manoj Bhajpayee in action
Well, if The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2, took five hours to tell, why should this one take less? Gangs is a rich, sprawling, decades-long tale of a feud encompassing several generations of families—two descended from competing train-robbers and a third clan controlling the lucrative local coal-mining industry. As of this screening, Part 1 wasn’t completely coherent as a standalone story, but it’s a thrilling ride.

Gangs opens with a very one-sided shootout that ends when the gunmen conclude that Faisal Khan is dead. He isn’t, and Part 2 will surely connect this bang-up opening to the rest of the story. But the remainder of Part 1 explains only a part of how Faisal gets to this point. And then the film rewinds to the 1940s, when Faisal’s grandfather, Shahid Khan, begins robbing British trains under the nose of bandit king and fellow Wasseypur native Sultana.

Although the characters come and go from Wasseypur over a thirty-year period in Part 1, they all remain tied to the place, to each other, and to traditions that predate them, in spite of the gusto with which they try to adopt the role of independent operators. In each generation there's a lone underdog who thinks it’s unfair for others to have so much more than he has, yet never minds becoming the man with more than his share. The first-generation character is Shahid, who believes that shared local ties will protect him from Sultana’s wrath and who cheerfully swipes loot that Sultana sees as rightfully his—and sells the stolen goods so cheaply that other, poorer neighbors can’t compete in the market. After Shahid turns to an "honest" job at the coal mine at his wife’s behest, he ends up killing the mine owner’s enforcer and then stepping into his place as the man who makes sure that the villagers continue to do the mine company’s bidding.

Shahid’s violent death causes his swollen sense of entitlement to pass to his son, Sardar Khan (the great Manoj Bajpayee). Sardar spends the next two decades or so exacting little bits of vengeance against the wealthy mine owner (Tigmanshu Dhulia, better known as the director of Paan Singh Tomar and Sahib Biwi aur Gangster) and his puffed-up idiot of a son.

Sardar Khan is a larger-than-life character who seems to feel that whatever he wants at that moment is absolutely his due. He is fortunate to be surrounded with loyal friends, but he meets his match in his bride Nagma, played with ferocious relish by Richa Chadda. We get a glimpse of her steel and fury when she bursts into the local brothel, pregnant and wielding a large knife, when he doesn’t come home one night. When he goes to jail, she trains their oldest son to march in with a sneer and a tiffin packed with bomb-making supplies. But her loyalty, unlike that of the family retainers, stops short of allowing him to take a second wife (Reema Sen) who is a Bengali Hindu.

Nawaz: Irrfan + Aamir,
with Amitabh eyewear
Nagma and Sardar have three sons, and the middle is Faisal, who will have so many enemies when he grows up. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faisal is a pot-smoking wastrel who spends his days hanging out—where else?—at the local cinema (we see him at Trishul, falling for the girl who loves Amitabh as much as Faisal does).

So many characters, so many crimes. Nobody is innocent except, perhaps, the impoverished local miners, farmers, and fishermen, who are inevitably the ones most ripped off by the swaggering gang lords.

And so many songs. Kashyap has shown that he’s open to eclectic wildness from his music director (Amit Trivedi’s Dev.D soundtrack paved bold new paths in Indian film, and this time Sneha Khanwalkar--whose work on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! made a terrific impact--does heroic work with songs both old and new). There are fourteen songs in Part 1, with ten or so more promised in Part 2. There are old Bollywood songs performed at weddings (“Salaam-e-Ishq”), reggae-tinged folk songs performed by travelers on a train, and perfectly suited new numbers that show how the right music and the right film story can work together to form something greater than the sum of the parts.

I can guess how this story ends, but I can't wait to see it play out! Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

BAABUL: The Family Jewels

Baabul wants so badly to be an old-school Bollywood masala entertainment that I really tried to like it. There’s Amitabh Bachchan as the happiest of men (until The Tragedy strikes)—he has a mansion, a son (Salman Khan) who is both his “buddy” and the heir to his jewelry empire, and a wife (Hema Malini) who’s still beautiful and coquettish and, being Hema, a great dancer. There’s throaty-voiced Rani Mukherjee, one of my favorite current heroines. There’s a good song written and sung by the Big B himself playing over the opening credits. What could go wrong?

Salman Khan in his pre-gymnified youth
Oh, so many, many things. But let’s cut to the chase. I know Salman Khan still has legions of fans, and I haven’t always found him off-putting—I confess, I thought he was quite charming in his pre-gymnified youth (maybe it’s just that I saw Hum Aapke Hain Kaun when I was new to Bollywood and willing to suspend more disbelief than I can these days). Now, he’s the same in every movie—puffy-eyed and glib, phoning in every scene like a musclebound Dean Martin.