Tuesday, November 19, 2013

TALAASH: Down and Out in Mumbai

Talaash ("Search") is a detective story that ultimately seems more interested in human drama than in whatever solution there is to the film's central mystery. While there are some thrills in this thriller, it's the hard-luck subplots that give it staying power--and although many of these stories get more "closure" than a strict adherence to realism would allow, that, too, can be satisfying for those willing to suspend disbelief.

Director Reema Kagti, who co-wrote story and screenplay with Zoya Akhtar, is careful to cast light on the people toiling in the shadows of the starstruck city of Mumbai even as she follows a high-profile police investigation. The chorus of the jazzy song playing under the opening credits says that "the smile is a lie" as it shows prostitutes climbing into cars and addicts drinking clouds of smoke. This beginning has a whiff of the stunningly fine opening credit sequence of Zoya Akhtar's own Luck by Chance, which also featured unsung, unglamorous people who don't often appear in glossy Bollywood films (and which remains one of my all-time favorite scenes), but Zoya's images of studio-set laborers show real people doing real jobs; in contrast, the hookers and junkies in Talaash look more like junior artistes wearing prop-room rags and glitter. Still, the cynical lyrics (by legendary film writer Javed Akhtar, who also happens to be Zoya's father) and moody look create an effective setup for the first scene.
Zoya Akhtar, Luck by Chance, opening credits
Studio construction workers in Zoya Akhtar's Luck by Chance
The switch from languid addicts to action is sudden: on a deserted stretch of Seaface Road, a speeding luxury car makes a sudden right turn and plunges over the embankment into the water below. The car's driver turns out to have been fictional Bollywood hero Armaan Kapoor, and his high-profile death spurs a police investigation headed by detective Suri Shekhawat (Aamir Khan, in a dramatic moustache). Suri talks smoothly to the rich and connected, but he is just as sincere with the terrified peons--the star's driver and spotboy, inexplicably asked by the hero not to accompany him in the car that night--who have the worn-down look of people accustomed to serving the powerful.

Rani Mukerji, Aamir Khan, Talaash
Rani and Aamir falling apart
We get repeated reminders that the story's interest is held less by the flashy crash and more by the human-scaled tragedies that happen all around it. One subplot concerns the unraveling marriage of Suri and his wife (Rani Mukherji), who are grieving the recent drowning death of their young son. She's seeing a therapist, but he's the one who can't sleep, dozing off only to enter repeated dream-world replays of the minutes just before the boy's death, and to see himself preventing the tragic outcome. Then he wakes up. 

In another subplot, in a part of Mumbai that might as well be on
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Talaash, Tehmur
Nawazuddin plotting a way out
another planet far, far away from middle-class sorrow, lame Tehmur (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the errand-boy of an abusive pimp, overhears things he's not supposed to know. Tehmur develops a brazen plan for working the angles and earning himself a chance for a happy-ever-after with the oldest of the prostitutes (Sheeba Chadha, also from Luck by Chance). Nawazuddin, who's been earning justified accolades in an amazing range of parts, plays the role as partly heroic and partly despicable, a character whose empathy for other miserable wretches goes only so far.

Connecting these miles-apart stories is the beautiful streetwalker Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), who spots the cop on his sleepless, aimless nightly rounds. She seems to be eyeing him as a potential customer, and for him she is, at first, merely a source of information about his case. But there's an underlying connection that isn't the one I expected. Rosie sees Suri as more kindred spirit and confidante than potential lover--and this is not the only parallel between their characters and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam's Chhoti Bahu and Bhoothnath.*

Kareena Kapoor, Talaash, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam
Eena Meena Kareena
When I watched Talaash a second time knowing the all the secrets that the film reveals as it unfolds, I did start to notice a few ragged edges. The characterizations rely more on star-power than on careful writing; Kareena Kapoor is a bit too upmarket to disappear into the role of streetwalker Rosie, Aamir Khan's character is more interesting as a bereaved dad than as a rather movie-typical upright cop, and Rani Mukerji's wise, suffering woman might be generic in other hands. But star-power can put audiences in a mood to forgive a lot of sketchiness, and it's so megawatt here that it's often enough.

The music (by Ram Sampath, who did such great work on Delhi Belly) didn't wow me, but a creepy repeated three-note motif--I swear it's the creaky-swing music from the scene in Sholay when the thakur returns home to find his family murdered--got under my skin like a fragment of a dream.

And I also couldn't shake a couple of small, telling moments from Talaash's matter-of-fact depictions of life among the sex workers and pimps. In one scene, we get a casual glimpse of a group of prostitutes asking Tehmur the servant for a drink of water--and in response, he passes the water bottle to them through the bars of the jail-like cell inside which they are imprisoned. Later a young woman whose boyfriend has been killed is dragged, wailing and protesting, back to work for the madam the boyfriend had paid for her freedom. Such moments aren't belabored, but they still manage to reveal something about what the bottom rung looks like and why it's so hard to imagine a way out.

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, Chhoti Bahu, Bhootnath
Talaash has grim moments, but it isn't a grim movie. It's exciting and twisty and mysterious and really quite entertaining. But even if a few of the characters end up with something that looks suspiciously like a happy ending, there's no denying that this thriller has a sad, sad core. The star presence and some only-in-the-movies plot devices reassure us: relax, it's only a story! But I'm guessing that the most depressing parts are probably true.

*No, I can't tell you any more than this.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

RAAZ 3: All About Arth

Every now and then a film comes along that is so stupid that it's compulsively watchable. Being entertained by Raaz 3  was a little unsettling: who knew it would be possible to enjoy a film called [Anything] 3? But enjoyable it is, if only on a Showgirls level. Bipasha Basu throws herself with gusto into the role of an actress willing to go beyond mere negative roles to find success.

Let me first note that I haven't seen the other two installments in the Raaz series. According to Wikipedia, the omission is of no consequence, for the Raaz films neither build on one another nor feature the same characters. The name "Raaz" is purely branding--letting the faithful know that the Bhatt dynasty has released another supernatural thriller. (Hey, it's a living, though it's a stunning departure from the days when Mahesh Bhatt--now patriarch and producer--created works of Arth.)

I also don't know whether "black magic" is really a thing in Hinduism. This, too, is unimportant. When I first saw The Exorcist, I was ignorant of whether the Catholic church really had an official policy for dealing with demon possession, and I remain so today. The point was to creep out the audience and to buff the head-spinning, pea-soup-puking content with a veneer of seriousness. To that end, any religious ritual--even an invented one--would serve. Same deal here; Raaz 3 has a demon of uncertain provenance and scenes set in Catholic graveyards "on the threshold between life and death," but apparently there's a puja for that.

Not the major award Bips expects.
As Raaz 3 begins,  Bipasha Basu is a famous actress over thirty who is nominated for a major award. She consults her astrologer, who tells her that the stars are aligned for her victory. But when another actress claims the prize, Bips is humiliated--she even stands up before the winner's name is announced and then has to sit back down, the way people do in movies when you need to see them extra-embarrassed. (An aside: do awards shows actually exist that have the winner in one category accept his prize and then remain onstage to announce the winner in the next category? The Oscars should try this; at least then maybe Martin Landau would get to finish his speech.)

For a while Raaz 3 plays out like All About Eve, if Margo Channing were seeking demonic assistance and if Eve really were as innocent and blameless as everyone thinks she is. The younger actress (Esha Gupta) gets the acclaim and the parts Bips wants. She seems to be ascending as Bips falls.

A former servant tells Bips that her god wanted her to win the award, but that another, more powerful god was backing the other actress. Without a backward glance at poor Ganesh on her home altar, Bips waltzes off to a bad neighborhood to meet with a demon who agrees to throw Esha Gupta under the bus.

Poor Bips doesn't get much help from the demon; he provides her with a potion she has to put in the younger woman's drinking water, but getting access to her is Bips' own affair. So, speaking of affairs, Bips seeks help from the director (Emraan Hashmi) of her new film, with whom she has a past. He cares about her--so much that he idiotically offers to give her his own award statuette to make up for her not winning one, whereupon Bips quite sensibly breaks a window with it. Emraan Hashmi is shocked that Bips is considering poisoning Esha Gupta's drink, but he has no trouble believing that demons are cooking up potions for her, which tells us a lot about his critical thinking skills. (Well, we are talking about Emraan Hashmi.) Naturally, Bips wins his cooperation with her mad sexiness. The price of sleeping with Bips is poisoning Esha Gupta, and at the time Emraan Hashmi thinks it's worth it.

You won't be surprised to learn that later in the film, after some Exorcist-esque  shenanigans, "serial kisser" Emraan Hashmi switches his loyalty to the younger woman and sleeps with her, too. But she's still presented as untainted, while Bips becomes more and more monstrous--presumably because Bips had the audacity to be the seducer in spite of, you know, not being a man, and because Esha is (in contrast) just a pretty girl who is completely helpless in the face of Emraan Hashmi's he-man vibe*.

Compare Bipasha Basu and Emraan Hashmi kissing, in this shot

with Emraan and Esha Gupta kissing, in this shot:

Bips is so in charge of poor Emraan in that first shot that it's almost as if he learned something from her in the second one. Emraan isn't my cup of tea, but I enjoyed watching Bips wrangle him so efficiently.

After falling for Bips' nemesis, Emraan Hashmi still can't stop Bips from continuing her poisoning ways. This leads to Esha Gupta having the kind of breakdown that would only be a disaster in Bollywood: attacked by swarms of Exorcist II locusts, she rips off all her clothes and runs naked into a well-heeled Hindi film crowd. This is a problem--get this--because the filmi media print that it's a publicity stunt rather than a genuine disorder. (Really? Claiming it was all a publicity stunt gets you out of trouble in Hollywood; it's the mental issues that cause worry.) Thanks to the impromptu nude scene, Esha gets bumped from Emraan Hashmi's film and lurks weepily about, hoping people will believe she's sincerely disturbed and not just a nudist.

Then things get awesomely weird. Thanks to Esha's firing, Bips gets her career back, and the item number in her new film has her dancing in front of guys wearing silver lame pants and fringed eyewear that is proof that it's better to look good than to see well:

And then this shot, which was, for me, the turning point at which I began to root for Bips to fall for the demon and get to keep making creepy sci-fi song sequences forever:

Who are those people in the tanks? (The ones who aren't Bips, I mean.) How did we get from the fringed-eyewear boys to sensory deprivation? If you're like me, seeing this clip would make you would put the movie-within-the-movie into your Netflix queue, stat.

Soon Bips meets with her demon again and asks him to kill off Esha Gupta for good and all, and only then does he demand payment, which is that she has to have sex with him. Bips doesn't look thrilled or anything, but neither does she seem to think that this is too high a price to pay.

The rest of the film is kind of like a horror-movie version of Arth, with Bips' seething cray-cray driving Emraan Hashmi back into the arms of sweet, only-crazy-on-the-outside Esha Gupta. Emraan Hashmi regrets having helped Bips. He reveals to Esha Gupta that he made a mistake in putting poison in her drinks, and she breaks up with him.

But when he comes crawling back, she's in a coma and so can't shut the door firmly in his face the way Shabana Azmi would have. There's a morgue scene (said to be another place "on the threshold between life and death") with a Hindu pandit and Emraan Hashmi and a doctor who exposits a lot of deeply unconvincing X-Files-style nonsense about things we know not of, blah blah blah.

Then Demon Bips comes calling and must be destroyed, but not before being slammed into walls and required to crawl over gurneys with a seriously messed-up leg. By this point I felt that demonic Bips was well worth rooting for--was, in fact, the heroine of the film. In All About Eve, audiences are pulling for cranky aging diva Bette Davis, not too-good-to-be-true Anne Baxter. In Arth, we certainly didn't want things to work out fine for the philandering husband. (I hope we wouldn't have cheered if he had tossed Smita Patil across a hospital room.) I understand that horror-movie audiences are accustomed to the "women who seek sex must die" rule, so Bips cannot survive to the closing credits.

But the last shot of Emraan Hashmi and Esha Gupta enjoying their happily ever after made me hope that the next Raaz might bring Bips back to rampage another day.

*Maybe she's just too traumatized to figure out what she's doing, since Emraan seduces her right after they've returned from their first attempt at exorcism in the graveyard, during which Esha ends up tethered to a decapitated demon-hunter. It doesn't seem like a typical date night, so it's also possible they are both kinkier than the script otherwise lets on.  

Friday, September 27, 2013


Do Aankhen Barah Haath* (Two Eyes, Twelve Hands), director V. Shantaram's sublimely weird and lovely 1957 drama, tells the story of an enlightened prison warden, the six convicted murderers whose lives he changes with an open-prison experiment, and an itinerant toy-seller who happens along. Shantaram spins his tale by relying heavily on song and image, as if to explain patiently to very simple people that every human is capable of being good. This antidote to cynicism is a joy to watch.

The story follows the warden's desire to try his hand at rehabilitation. He selects the six most despicable killers in the prison and explains that they will accompany him to a barren piece of land that they must turn into a productive farm. (Metaphor alert!) They will not be locked up; only their duty to the warden and to each other will keep them on the farm.

The prisoners, a burly, hairy, grunting lot who are so accustomed to being chained that they tie themselves up on their first night in the outside world, must be prompted repeatedly to reveal their own names. They add handprints to a sheet of paper for the warden when he asks them to identify themselves. They communicate more with actions and broad facial expressions than with words; at important moments, Shantaram superimposes silent flashbacks alongside their faces, as if their thoughts were home movies. Along with this simple, very literal mind-reading, the broad pantomimes of their daily routine make the killers seem both comical and childlike as they embark on new lives as hardworking farmers.

The film's sole female character, the sassy toy-seller Champa (Sandhya, who is fantastic), also possesses an amazingly expressive face; she's got mad dancing skills, too. Best of all, Champa's hip-swaying walk is accentuated by a little machine that she ties to her clothes to follow her with a constant drum roll. It's probably a good thing that this landscape is sparsely populated; imagine if everyone made this much noise just passing by! But both the drumbeat heralding Champa's arrival and her grumpy traveling song are irresistible.

The dapper V. Shantaram
As the warden who stakes his reputation on the prisoners' willingness to follow the rules outside the prison walls, V. Shantaram himself--in his fifties (!!), but looking twenty years younger--also makes great use of silence and of his expressively filmi face. He's a father figure whose role is to model for the convicts the way they ought to live and behave. He works alongside them, cooks for them (much to everyone's chagrin), helps them readjust to life outside the prison, and fights for their dignity.

The eyes of the title belong to the warden, and his face is often framed or lit so that eyes are all we see. At key points in the film, his eyes appear in the sky when he isn't present. This sounds creepy, I know, but it's not--the warden is such a benevolent force that his omniscience ultimately inspires even hardened killers to try not to disappoint him. He's fair and just, and he understands their unhappiness without always being able to make it go away. Shantaram is likeable and believable playing a man who could easily be too good to be true.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath makes virtuoso use of faces and skies, light and shadow. The moment when the prisoners are silhouetted against the blinding daylight of the open prison door is hopeful, but it also conveys how sudden and strange this new situation is for the convicts. (There's even a chorus of bird song that grows deafening as they emerge into the world.) Out on the broad plains, the tree at the farm's gate at sundown has a Gone with the Wind glow--but minus the slavery.

Do Aankhen Barah Haath meets Gone with the Wind
All of the glorious visuals and charming storytelling would be enough even if the music were nothing special. How extra-fabulous, then, that every number from music director Vasant Desai is a gem. And what a range of emotions the songs cover, ranging from Champa's motivational "Tak Tak Dhum Dhum" and a number joyously heralding the arrival of the rain** to the lovely lullaby "Main Gaoon Tu Chhup Ho Ja," complete with sleepy calf and chicks.

The real kicker, though, is the hymn that reappears throughout the film, "Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum" ("Master, we are your children"). The film uses this song repeatedly as it works through many manifestations of the watchful parent/wayward child idea. At first the hymn is a prayer; the second time we hear it, the warden--waiting anxiously for the convicts to return from their first trip to the market without him, with night falling fast--is the picture of a worried father.

He's right to worry. The market official is the villain of the film, a greedy cheat who pays locals a pittance for their crops and resents the arrival of six hulking vegetable-growers who refuse to use a middleman. He tries various tactics to appeal to the convicts' baser natures.

The final test of the convicts' will to do the right thing comes when they are falsely accused of attacking the bazaar manager and beaten nearly to death in the marketplace. They could fight back--they're certainly big enough--but they don't, because they know that fighting will destroy the warden's reputation. Instead, they simply stand and accept a rain of blows until they fall unconscious. The scene  reveals just how much strength is required for these former thugs not to fight, and their conversion from broad comic characters to heroic strugglers is tremendously moving.

Also moving is the revelation that the warden's presence isn't the only thing keeping his little family on the straight and narrow path. The final reprise of "Ae Malik," sung by Champa, finds the convicts no longer either childlike or comical. The master being addressed in the song this time might still be a paternal god, or a prison warden, or a dad--but it might also be the watchful eyes of conscience. It's clear at this point that everyone in the film has internalized the warden's idealistic vision, and it's pretty damned beautiful.

V. Shantaram's satisfying fable is a useful reminder to us all that whatever we've done in the past, we can still decide to be decent human beings going forward. And thanks to Vasant Desai, we can sing as we go! Tak tak dhoom dhoom, tak tak dhoom dhoom....

*Major gratitude to Beth for introducing me to this fabulous film! May her DABH poster bring her many years of enjoyment.

**Surely this song must have inspired the "Ghanana Ghanana" number in Lagaan.

Friday, August 16, 2013


"There's a personal me, there's an actor me, and there's a star me," Shah Rukh Khan observed in Nasreen Munni Kabir's fascinating 2005 documentary, The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan. In his new blockbuster Chennai Express, there's not much of that inner world on display, but SRK's "star me" seems to be the entire point of the movie.

Having suffered through Ra.One, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, and director Rohit Shetty's Bol Bachchan, I wondered if planning to see Chennai Express indicated the triumph of hope over experience. I am happy to report that there are no videogames or otherworldly supervillains as in Ra.One, no unnecessary bargains with God as in JTHJ, and just a couple of Shetty's favored slow-motion shots of vehicles flipping end over end (preferably while on fire). There is a lot of mugging and fourth-wall-breaking, along with some of the most color-amped footage of filmi-rural South India I have ever had the pleasure to ogle. If you’re in the mood to enjoy a tongue-in-cheek snapshot of SRK’s outer world--and if you're not unduly bothered by an ending that talks all feminist and then vigorously backpedals*--then you may have fun hopping on the Chennai Express.

Here we find SRK playing yet another character named Rahul. (“You must have heard that name before,” he says, in Chennai Express's nod to Om Shanti Om's nod to SRK's many Rahul roles.) Orphaned in childhood and raised by his grandparents to take over their sweet shop, this Rahul is forty years old and in dire need of romance, so his dear friends** concoct a plot to sneak him off to Goa for a holiday. But Dada Ji dies just before Rahul is to leave, so instead of vacationing, he's expected to deposit Dada Ji’s ashes in the waters of a southeastern Indian temple town. Dadi Maa sees Rahul off on the Chennai Express. He intends to hop off at the first stop and ditch the remains in Goa instead, but his plans immediately go awry.

Deepika ponders her escape
The train of the film's title is, naturally,  an excuse to kick off an SRK retrospective. Winking at the camera, Rahul grasps the hand of a beautiful girl (Deepika Padukone, but you knew that already) running in slow motion to catch the departing train while “Tujhe Dekha Ko” swells on the soundtrack. Then he performs the same rescue four more times as the tune continues to play, hauling on board a series of increasingly large lungi-wearing thugs, who are in pursuit of Deepika’s character, Meena.

These jokes amuse me, but such constant exposure to the outer world of SRK rather obliterates the inner world; Shah Rukh Khan doesn't seem terribly focused on acting the part of the sweet-shop guy who has never had a girlfriend when Rahul is boasting to a damsel in distress about his $700 mobile phone. Still, I enjoyed the familiar quotations from the hits that made SRK a multiplex superstar and household name.  (If I had grown up with these movies, I might be rolling my eyes at all this broad, self-referential humor, but I didn't grow up with them, so I enjoy the fact that the jokes are so very meta.)

The goofball let’s-put-on-a-show aspect of Shah Rukh’s comic performances often makes him quite likable. Maybe we believe we're getting a glimpse of the "personal me" when SRK seems to hold his own stardom at arm's length, like the middle-class boy from Delhi he used to be. But there’s no denying that the Khan humor can slide toward meanness. Not to take unnecessary umbrage--I find it very silly when a film has to, say, change its completely inoffensive name thanks to manufactured outrage--but the Tamil-speakers in Chennai Express are the butt of an awful lot of these-guys-talk-funny jokes. There is also a pointless and mortifying scene with a cross-eyed, speech-impaired dwarf that made me want to cover my eyes and ears.

Back to the plot involving Deepika and all those lumpen South Indian guys on the train: Meena turns out to be a Tamil godfather's runaway daughter, and the men are bringing her home to marry a local bigwig's son in whom she isn't interested. Meena pretends to be in love with Rahul for no convincing reason, which lands Rahul in hot water with the don and the outsized fiancé. The couple escape the village together thanks to Rahul grabbing a motorcycle and proving to have unexpectedly Dhoom-level biking skills. For the next hour, he and Meena bicker, pretend to be married, fall in love, and end up on the run again.

During this perfunctory romp, much of the scenery is surreally gorgeous. I'm quite sure there is no actual village anywhere on earth as clean, as idyllically situated, or with as many eye-popping colors as the one that exists in this film to be a backdrop for Meena's realization that she actually does love Rahul. Deepika and SRK, both in hot pink, swirl past baskets of searingly orange and yellow marigolds. Plastic containers in vendors' carts in the bazaar are enticingly candy-hued--yes, this village even has attractive Tupperware! The musical number "Kashmir Main, Tu Kanyakumari" features elephants with gleaming gold headgear and people dressed in vivid yellow tiger suits, Kathakali dancers, SRK in his DDLJ hat and jacket, and much, much more, posing before a backdrop that lacks only the Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ahh, who needs reality? An overload of egregious, flagrant, pulsating color makes me throw my hands in the air and say, "I concede. You're right. Total awesome WIN."

And oh, how I admired Deepika's clothes. Her sarees are a sumptuous feast of deep oranges and blues and vast swaths of gold embroidery, in which she is absolutely stunning. And she's also appealingly game, barreling through grimaces and funny voices in a sleepwalking (or, rather, a sleep SRK-pummeling) scene. "Single-screen humor," sniffs Rahul, but at the screening I saw it was hard to hear him over the guffaws from the audience.

After the interval we're in another film all of a sudden. Instead of poking nostalgic fun at those old Rahul/Raj characters who helped middle-class striver Shah Rukh Khan morph into Superstar SRK, the film actually turns into an old Rahul/Raj film. Rahul and Meena have escaped her father's grasp, and they're going their separate ways. But wait! They realize they're in love! Well, that means they can simply escape together to a sweet (-shop) future, right? Um, no. Instead, Rahul makes a detour and heads straight back to the village without telling Meena what he's up to. Why, you may ask, would he return to the place they've been on the run from for 90 minutes? Because he has to win her father's approval or he won't be able to live with himself, obviously. (The leather jacket in that Kashmir number isn't the only thing borrowed from DDLJ.) Rahul makes an affecting speech about the importance of women in independent India. Hooray! Then the hulking fiancé delivers the obligatory last-reel pummeling, by the end of which Shah Rukh is, as in days of yore, weeping and stammering and covered with blood and snot. And, as in days of yore, his perseverance naturally wins over Meena's father, who has been restraining Meena during the beatdown. He releases her hand so she can run to Rahul's side with daddy's blessing.

Sigh. I have seen this scene so many times before that I might have accepted it as retrograde and annoying yet par for the course had it not been for, you know, the big speech Rahul has just delivered (literally seconds before!) about respecting a woman's right to her own choices. What happened to autonomy? Why bring it up just to abandon the whole concept? If it's so essential that Meena be allowed to choose her own path, then why are the men fighting? How about you keep your hands to yourselves, boys, and let her decide?

A minute or so later, the film concludes with a tribute to Superstar Rajnikanth performed by, I kid you not, Honey Singh. I'm guessing that a bow to Rajnikanth was necessary to prevent people from fretting over the South Indian jokes. (And I'm pretty sure that SRK owes Rajnikanth one after putting him in Ra.One.) But did the tribute have to come from this guy?

Oh, hey! Look over here! Bright colors! Dancing! Self-effacing humor! And MONSTER SUPER HIT!

You know, if I squint just so and tilt my head at a certain angle, all I can see is stardust.

*I find that more and more, I have a hard time not being bothered by this. Can't we all just grow up and be OK with women being people too?

**Never to be seen again.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

DUSHMAN: Breaking Good

Rajesh Khanna was so widely known as the "first superstar" of Indian film that this designation appeared in most of his obituaries when he died last year. It's also widely known (if not admitted by his Wikipedia entry) that Amitabh Bachchan's stardom eclipsed Rajesh Khanna's after a few years, and I confess that I find that unsurprising--Amitabh's mid-1970s films remain among my favorites, whereas I often find myself a bit less excited about a film once I see Rajesh Khanna's face on the box.

Maybe it's because I had already fallen for Amitabh's Vijay persona before I encountered Rajesh Khanna for the first time, and then--like the Indian public in the 1970s--I couldn't go back. Or maybe it's chemistry: Rajesh Khanna, aka "Kaka," and I just don't click. Amitabh himself may have been won over by the title character's irrepressible sunniness in Anand, but I was not. (Maybe this is one of those Jerry-Lewis-and-the-French issues; my completely unscientific study of U.S. non-Indian Bollywood fans reveals that few feel much in the way of Kaka-thusiasm.)

But a friend assured me that Dushman would offer superhit music and a "good social message," which I am totally, unironically predisposed to love--so here I am, writing about a Rajesh Khanna movie from the Superstar period before that upstart Amitabh got all the acclaim.

I do find Rajesh Khanna more appealing when he is not exhibiting his heart of gold-slash-love of life. At the beginning of Dushman, his character, Surjit Singh, is a truck driver stopping to get drunk with a nautch girl somewhere along the route. This initial song shows Kaka at his most cynical--which is, IMHO, far preferable to goopy nice-guy Rajesh Khanna--saying unflattering things to Bindu* as the truck-stop dancer:

Seldom have I seen such a matter-of-fact, if fully-clothed, one-night-stand in an older Indian film! Why, the characters don't even seem to like each other much when they fall in bed together. Cut to the sun streaming in and waking the pair in the morning, the driver having stayed much longer than he meant to. So now he's both debauched and late, still drunk and still drinking. In the fog he barrels along too fast, swilling from a bottle, and kills an improverished farmer.

You knew it had to happen; there must be something for Rajesh Khanna to spend the rest of the film making up for. The farmer leaves behind a lame father, a blind mother, an unmarried sister, two small sons, and a widow (Meena Kumari, just a year before her death and looking sadly the worse for wear) who is in no mood to forgive. Surjit's day in court makes clear what an unapologetic blame-shifter he is. But the magistrate, played by Rehman, steps in to try a social experiment (perhaps atoning for driving poor Meena Kumari to drink); he declares that Surjit will spend the next year living with the family whose son/husband/brother/father he took away, coming to a better understanding of his crime and filling the gap left by the farmer's death.

Now, I'm all for cultivating empathy, but you have to admit there are flaws in this approach to punishment. It seems rather harsh to require the distraught family to live with the murderer, even if the worthy goal is for him to care for them as the dead man would have. (Imagine if George Zimmerman had been sentenced to move in with Trayvon Martin's father!) 

I couldn't help wondering, too, if the value of the lost life would have been spelled out in such purely economic terms had the dead man not been a poor villager. So, say, if Surjit had run over Shah Rukh Khan's character in DDLJ, would he have been sentenced to flunk out of college and tour Europe in his place? But I digress. Anyway, the farmer was the support of his family, and now he's gone, so Surjit has to take care of the old folks, marry off the sister, and feed the kids, all while dealing with the Wrath of Meena, who teaches the smallest son that the guest's name is "Dushman" ("Enemy").

After a single day of pitchfork-wielding yokels, hungry children, dramatically unhappy grandparents, and no food or water, Surjit determines to run away from his village "prison," only to be nabbed and brought in front of Rehman. I'm hungry, he whines, and Rehman patiently and slowly explains that the family was as dependent on the farmer as Surjit has been on them this first day, and that it's his job now to improve their lives somehow.

An interesting premise--I couldn't help wondering what a modern film would have Surjit do to earn his keep. (I understand that cooking crystal meth in Albuquerque is fairly lucrative.) But this film, from the spinning center of the First Superstar Era, seems to assume that the audience is already on board with the idea that Rajesh Khanna must be a good person, deep down. In spite of the bad-boy persona being troweled on pretty thickly at the beginning, nobody watching Dushman could imagine that Kaka has it in him to do anything other than the right thing from here on out. Surjit Singh is as transparent as glass, like a character in a fable--which is to say, like a character played by Superstar Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna channels Nargis.
There's still enjoyment to be had in Dushman. A host of villains try to steal the farmer's land, which is supposed to be haunted. In a plot perhaps borrowed from Scooby Doo, the ghost is really Mumtaz, who is hiding her earnings in the field at night to keep her drunken grandfather from stealing the money for liquor. Surjit Singh solves the ghost mystery and wins over the hungry children, who help Dushman Chacha to perfect his Mother India impression while plowing the field. Dushman Chacha repairs machinery, learns farming, and pays it both forward and back. The villain burns the crops, but the stoic villagers vow to plant more. Eventually, everyone except Angry Meena is firmly in the I Heart Dushman Chacha camp.

Once Surjit Singh has traded his dusty black truck-driving outfit for a white suit and accidentally misplaced his moustache, he and Mumtaz become an item. I find her cute rather than beautiful and think she lacks a certain edge (in spite of the drunken grandpa backstory, soon to be repurposed for Dabangg's leading lady), but maybe that's why she pairs so well with the easily tamed Rajesh Khanna. Whatever! She dances with great verve, and she appears onscreen with a truly great Freudian typo:

Obviously, at this point, only a curmudgeon (MEENAAAA!!) would oppose the total acceptance of Dushman Chacha as village good guy. Since the first moral-dilemma plot of the film fizzles out with so little fanfare, I did enjoy seeing a second dilemma involving Meena: the villain kidnaps Mumtaz and plans to rape or kill her, or both, and Meena is the only one who knows--but if she keeps quiet, Surjit Singh will be blamed. What will she do??

Do I have to tell you how it ends? Really?

Well, OK, but don't tell anyone. Amitabh arrives as Vijay, and Rajesh Khanna is finally free to appear in Red Rose.**

*Oh, I do love Bindu.

**Having re-read Jai Arjun Singh's fabulous post on Red Rose while adding the link above, I realize that he's already said pretty much everything I'm saying here about Rajesh Khanna, only better. And he also did this. Could there be a more fitting last word?

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Once the basic needs of life are taken care of, what makes a person happy? Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani tackles that question, sort of, but if you ask me, the film is arguing for giant Bollywood production numbers as one of life's great pleasures. And since really good naach-gaana strikes me as a prime reason to be cheerful, you will get no argument from me on that.

Watching the first number in YJHD, which happens right at the beginning of the film, I realized how very long it has been since I've watched a song-and-dance extravaganza that was this much fun. I've heard the argument that it's a comedown for the great Madhuri Dixit to appear as a tawaif in an item number, but I'm just grateful to see her dance again. Her beauty is all the more poignant now that her face has a few lines, and the spring in her step seems undiminished. And what joy there is in her dance-off with Ranbir Kapoor! The situation requiring the dance remains vague to me (he's an intern on a documentary shoot, she's the subject of the film, and there seems to be a lot of innuendo), but as the kids say, whatever. It's the kind of dance number that makes me glad to be alive and reminds me of the wonders of unapologetic Bollywood. I grinned like an idiot all the way through.

And if there is a future for Bollywood as we have known it in this age of the Hindi indie (and I love both)--Ranbir Kapoor is the one I would pin my hopes on. Watching him dance is one of the reliable pleasures of today's cinema, and if the merest excuse is all it takes to get him started, well, hooray! Even when he isn't dancing--even when, as in this film, his character seems a hair underwritten--I'm willing to go along. A not-very-studious young Indian citizen gets a full scholarship to Northwestern with so little effort that his friends don't even know he's applied? A journalism degree leads to a job as a globe-trotting cameraman (the kind who breezes through Rome at sunset, not the kind who gets shot at in Afghanistan)? The cameraman job leads to an offer to be the host of a reality show that involves living in Paris for six months, apparently minus the Real World-style psychotic roommates? OK, fine, let's not look too closely. If anyone on earth has that kind of luck, why not Ranbir Kapoor?

Deepika Padukone
What "plain" looks like in the movies.
The foil to Ranbir's Bunny is Deepika Padukone's Naina, a glasses-wearing girl who spent her formative years studying so hard that her schoolmates didn't even register her presence. (Let us pass lightly over the Hollywood/Bollywood convention that if a girl wears glasses, then she cannot be considered attractive, even if she has a face like Deepika Padukone's.) Now she's preparing to be a doctor, but a chance encounter with a free-spirited former classmate (Kalki Koechlin) makes her decide on a whim to go spontaneously trekking in Manali. Naina and Bunny--also old schoolmates--meet cute shortly before the trip, which starts with an unexpectedly poignant drinking game in a crowded train compartment that reveals good-girl Naina as the odd one out among her more flirty, flighty young companions.

Olivia Newton-John in Grease, changing yourself for a boy
What I was afraid of.
My daughter, who has experienced just under 14 years of life, pronounced this film "predictable," but based on my longer time on earth I'm convinced it was not at all a given that Naina would fall for Bunny without actually losing herself in the process (think of what Olivia Newton-John went through in Grease to get the boy). While the spontaneous Manali trip may seem out of character for careful planner Naina, she proves there that she has a sense of adventure and plenty of good humor. She also falls for good-time loverboy Bunny, but just as she's about to tell him how she feels, she learns about his sudden serious Northwestern plan, which a studious girl like Naina wouldn't think of derailing. Instead, she decides to forget him and buckles back down to her chosen career path.

We catch up with Naina and Bunny again after the interval, when they're eight years older. The occasion for the old friends' reunion is the wedding of Kalki Koechlin's character, who is engaged to marry not Avi (Aditya Roy Kapoor), the fourth old trekking pal on whom Kalki once had a crush and who has become something of a loser, but the wacky, plump Kunaal Roy Kapoor (last seen by me having some serious intestinal distress in Delhi Belly, and, for what it's worth, the brother of Aditya). I expected, then worried, that Kalki would ditch her bumbling but sweet fiance for her old flame, but fortunately, YJHD doesn't take that path either. The four friends get to know one another again. Bunny has soared, while Avi has also tried to make a living having fun and failed. Kalki has found a dependable, traditional guy and discovered that she likes being solid and respectable; Naina, who has always been respectable, has remained alone and seems OK with that choice.

The wedding/reunion is the occasion for yet another showstopping number from Ranbir*, and I throw it in here because who doesn't need the occasional delirious good time?

I'm not going to say that it's a spoiler to mention that Bunny and Naina do eventually end up together, but for a good part of the film, that outcome doesn't feel certain. How nice, at least, to see these two not making any decisions about pairing off until after a conversation acknowledging that they want different things from life. Bunny raves about the famous burgers of San Francisco (burgers?? but never mind), while Naina extols a home-cooked biryani. In the end, Bunny is pulled earthward, in traditional Hindi-film fashion, by realizing that being at home more would have given him more time with his big-hearted and doting father (Farooque Shaikh, awwww). His teasing, sweet relationship with dad and stepmother (Tanvi Azmi, also adorable) makes the belated attractions of family life a little more believable.

In the end, it feels pretty satisfying for Bunny to come to Naina and not the other way around. They may not have worked out all the problems that they'll have to resolve, but at least they're thinking things through. And so, after the film, was my daughter, who wisely noted, "He can travel, and then come home. Or maybe she can travel with him once in a while."

And then while they're in the same place, they can do a lot of big fluffy Bollywood production numbers. And that, my friends, sounds like more than enough for a happily-ever-after.

*Am I imagining this, or does someone really shout "Ranbir!!" when he shows up at the beginning of this video?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

DABANGG 2: Kiss Kiss Dabangg Dabangg

After watching the first half of Dabangg 1, I felt I had pretty much gotten the gist, so I never finished it. The opening of Dabangg 2, with Salman Khan's Chulbul Pandey wreaking havoc in the villains' lair, gave me a sense of déjà vu that was almost overwhelming. The one thing I didn't expect from this movie was surprises. Nevertheless, Dabangg 2 did produce a couple of raised eyebrows.

The first surprise was the ethical shortcomings of pretty much everything Chulbul did. At the risk of sounding like a scold (main maan hoon!! cut me some slack!), why is Chulbul taking his younger brother to hang with bar girls to celebrate the brother's new job with the police force? It's true that the result is a kind of fun item number featuring a wriggling Kareena Kapoor splashing booze all over the room in Bollywood shorthand for "everyone is really drunk now."

But is this really the message Young India should be getting about the role of the police in a democratic society? Sigh. (Also, I'm guessing that the brother's wife, who is off studying to be a teacher so she can support the family, would not feel all that thrilled about her husband's new job if this is how it makes him behave.)

While we're on the topic of questionable cop ethics, I note in passing that most of Chulbul's heroics culminate in his acquisition of piles of money, whether it's a gangster's squirreled-away stash or a suitcase full of rupees that a father has brought to ransom his little boy. I don't care how conniving the businessman father has been--making him hand the ransom over to the police instead of to the thugs kind of blurs the line between them, don't you see, Chulbul? If you're a cop, you don't get to play Robin Hood. You're already supposed to be one of the good guys.

Salman in Dabangg 2, or
close approximation.
The other, equally unpleasant surprise was that the movie was just plain boring. How nice for the Khan brothers that they've gotten their hands on that Matrix camera that allows the audience to see slow-mo projectiles whizzing over Salman's torso or to see Salman kicking in a series of villains' faces 1! 2! 3! 4! while whirling in midair like a pole dancer. But I never expected a movie to make me say, "Ho hum, Salman has dodged a flying machete with a yogic back bend yet again." And that's what this one did.

The dances are all the same. Salman does the belt-buckle wiggle and some suggestive hand motions. He's always dancing in front of a phalanx of men (let's call them "Salmanellas") who look touchingly eager to be backing him as he does his musclebound moves.
Dabangg 2, Salman Khan

But while dull choreography is pretty bad, the really unforgivable boringness happens in the final scene. We've already noted that Chulbul's fighting technique is unstoppable: he can mow down a lairful of evildoers without breaking a sweat. He encourages little children to sit and watch his dhishoom-dhishoom because there's so little chance of anything going wrong. I'm no screenwriter, but I do know that in order to give us a little suspense, the climax of the film must therefore supply some reason, however threadbare, for Chulbul to be not quite at the top of his game. Superman has trouble with kryptonite. Marty McFly has trouble with being called "chicken." But Chulbul has no apparent weakness. So, out of the blue, a couple of goondas get in a solid blow to our hero's face (this allows the Matrix camera to slow-mo the single drop of blood that drips photogenically from Salman's brow). Chulbul falls down (???); the chief bad guy walks off gloating; Chulbul gets up again and mows down the rest of the gang. And really, when the chief bad guy is a middle-aged politician, what other outcome could be possible when he's the last man standing against a shirtless Salman?

So it comes to pass that "Kung Fu Pandey*" beats the dumpy villain to a pulp when he should have been thrashing the screenwriter instead. Then the evildoer is handcuffed, after which Chulbul shoots him dead and swaggers off righteously.

You'll probably see all of this again in Dabangg 3.

*The only funny joke in the movie.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


Kunal Kapoor, Huma Qureishi
Luv & Chickens
Moments after the first appearance of a lovely young woman who clearly has a history with the handsome hero of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, she storms off, and he tries to summon her by whistling “Tujhe Dekha To,” a tune that has become shorthand for a certain kind of romance involving young Indians abroad and the lure of an ancestral Punjabi home. The theme song worked famously for Shahrukh Khan in the original Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge; plucking those notes brought Kajol running at dawn through the yellow mustard fields to find her NRI darling. Here, though, Harman (Huma Qureshi) does not even turn to take a look back at Omi Khurana (Kunal Kapoor), who ditched her to run away to England a dozen years earlier. She just keeps riding her scooter into the night.

First-time director Sameer Sharma makes just this one explicit reference to DDLJ, meeting what I presume is the minimum legal requirement for films set in Punjab. But by setting this story in a world in which DDLJ exists, he can use what we think we already know about this story to take the tale in a different direction.

Kunal Kapoor, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, nightclub Hell
Omi in Hell
Like many films that contrast the wicked West with postcard-perfect India, Luv Shuv starts in London, so we see iconic shots of Big Ben and other touristy locations; I half-expected the late Amrish Puri to be in the background feeding pigeons. Omi is at a nightclub called “Hell”—I imagine Simran's father nodding grimly at that, too—surrounded by blonde British babes (played by blonde Russian babes) and Chinese guys who speak very dubbed-sounding English small talk. I waited for Omi to play some dirty trick on the Chinese gentlemen, but in the first of the small, enjoyable expectation-reversals that Sharma perpetrates throughout the film, Omi instead steals money from the purse of one of the girls—and then impresses her by paying for her drink. Yes, Omi is thoroughly a scoundrel.

Then a Punjabi heavy shows up and demands that Omi repay him many thousands of pounds, to which Omi responds by scarpering off to Punjab, that yellow-flowered agricultural paradise known to every Hindi-film fan. There, Omi assures the heavy, his family runs a famous eatery and will certainly give him the money.

Omi's home region is as postcard-pretty as it appears in DDLJ, but sly references, such as a painted-clay “Jatt Airways” model plane instead of a revenue-generating shot of an actual jet, suggest that Sharma enjoys reminding us that we're in a fantasy land. But it's certainly not Omi's fantasy to be there--his dream was to be a big shot in London, and he is neither happy to be home nor confident he's heading into a big welcome.

And uh-oh, flashbacks reveal that Omi left after chloroforming and robbing his grandfather, Darji. (Don't try this at home, kids! Generally, that's not the kind of memory you want the folks back home to be cherishing if you expect them to be happy to see you. Remember how long it took Amrish Puri to forgive Shahrukh Khan for even the minor crime of trying to buy beer after hours?) Omi's tentative approach to the family home reminded me of the scene in Bachna Ae Haseeno when another scoundrel, played by Ranbir Kapoor, arrives in Punjab to apologize for breaking the heart of a DDLJ-obsessed girl on a Swiss holiday years before. Surely it's poetic justice that Kunal Kapoor, who in that film answered the door and meted out beatings*, is the one slinking home again here.

As it happens, Omi doesn't have to face a reckoning with Darji, who has Alzheimer's and can't remember a thing—not even the recipe for Chicken Khurana, which means that the “famous eatery” is shuttered and the family broke. Omi's aunt and uncle, who raised him, are pleased to see him, though the uncle remains justifiably wary. Cousin Jeet (Rahul Bhagga) seems genuinely delighted at the wanderer's return in spite of the fact that Omi blinded him in one eye in a shooting accident years earlier. Titu Mama, the uncle who may or may not be crazy, is the only openly hostile member of the household.
Kunal Kapoor, Rahul Bhagga
The prodigal returns

Omi quickly proves that his powers of empathy aren't aroused by the lack of a family fortune to wheedle or embezzle. In one hilarious bit, he snoops in Jeet's office safe, accidentally setting off the music and flashing lights of the small battery-operated deity stored inside. It's not cleverness or trickery that keeps his relatives from finding out how little the prodigal cares about their welfare; it's sheer luck. But Harman, the girl Omi abandoned for London and has not called once in the dozen years he's been gone, is onto him. Harman is now engaged to Jeet. Both of them seem indifferent to the impending wedding, but she's still in no mood to forgive Omi for ditching her. When Harman is asked to change the bandage on Omi's bloodied nose (she's a doctor now), she glares straight into his eyes while ripping the dressing off his wound as brutally as possible. (Huma Qureshi is totally believable when making men weep—here she is chastising Nawazuddin Siddiqui for daring to hold her hand in Gangs of Wasseypur.)

Huma Qureshi, aviator glasses
Don't mess with Huma Qureshi.
Like Kajol's Simran in DDLJ, whose engagement to a Punjabi lout is merely an obstacle for True Love to overcome, Harman will of course not end up married to Jeet. The overall arc of the romance and family reconciliation in Luv Shuv will come as no great surprise to anyone who has seen a typical Indian (or, for that matter, Hollwood) film: Harman and Omi will rekindle their teenaged romance; Omi will see the error of his ways and be welcomed back to the fold. The quirky family members may prove more tolerant than is perhaps realistic, but I am a sucker for any scene featuring an elderly aunty ji announcing,“We're old, but we're not old-fashioned," whether or not I think it would happen in real life.

And what about those gangsters—the plot device that has sent both film and Omi back to Punjab, where their seemingly cynical hearts still lie? At first, the bad guys make solving the culinary mystery a matter of some urgency for Omi (and they also providing a rationale for the plotline that earned Luv Shuv its billing as "India's first food movie"), but Omi's search for the secret Chicken Khurana recipe gradually becomes more quixotic and relaxed before heading off in an unexpected direction. Finally, the movie finds its Punjabi groove and lets go of any suggestion that anything terrible might be about to happen. There is a final confrontation, but nobody else gets shot or beaten**.

This is a far sweeter film than DDLJ to me, since it omits all the irritating which-man-gets-to-own-Kajol macho posturing; and it's funnier, since the jokes are often at the expense of people who need to be taken down a peg instead of at the expense of a very sheltered young woman. But I'd argue that it's more romantic, too. Perhaps it's because the love stories here are, like me, a little more wearied and worn—from the torch Darji still carries for his late wife when he can remember nothing else, to the rekindled old flame between Omi as he starts to wise up and Harman as she starts to thaw, and finally to the moment when Darji recognizes Omi and speaks of how he's missed his prodigal grandson. Punjab ends up being home for Omi because it meets Robert Frost's definition: the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

And all of this plus another great score by one of my two favorite current music directors, Amit Trivedi. Maybe the song below isn't quite as ringtone-friendly as "Tujhe Dekha To," but I can vouch for both its awesomeness and for its power as an earworm:

Happy 100 years of Indian cinema!! I like the direction things are going at the moment.

*By this point in Luv Shuv, Omi has already endured the only beating he'll get in the film; personally, I appreciate getting this out of the way early on. I know, but do not understand why, many audiences in India in the 1990s loved to see a last-reel pummeling of Shahrukh, by the end of which he was invariably weeping and stammering, covered with blood and snot, but still standing and thus apparently worthy of getting the girl. Feel free to leave comments explaining this phenomenon to me.

**As Beth Loves Bollywood says, "You know exactly what will happen. You never know what might happen." Exactly. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

MAJBOOR: Only Logical

George Kennedy won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke in 1967, but I remember him better shilling for breath freshener in 1980s commercials where women gasp “George Kennedy!” in unison because they’re so thrilled with their celebrity sighting. In between these career high points, George apparently made a movie called Zig Zag, which I’ve never seen. I’m grateful to George for making it, though, because without that film we might not have the 1975 Hindi film Majboor, which according to Wikipedia is a “remake” of Zig Zag (without attribution, of course). Originality is certainly a fine thing, but even better are movies that serve up death sentences, prison breaks, car chases, weeping mothers, gypsies on the beach, and dancing thieves with a nearly straight face—and with Mr. Amitabh Bachchan in safari suits and denim jackets. Amitabh Supremo, indeed!

When it comes to the plots of 1970s Bollywood movies, my motto is, “Please, sir, I want some more.” Majboor obligingly throws every possible ingredient into the pot. Amitabh has not only a job supporting his family—including widowed mother, little brother (Master Alankar*), and wheelchair-bound sister (Farida Jalal)—but also a rich girlfriend (Parveen Babhi), a passing acquaintance with a tycoon/murder victim, and a probably fatal brain tumor. And that’s only the first half-hour.

But I get ahead of myself. The cops (the most senior of whom is played by, all together now, Iftekhar) come to the travel agency where Amitabh works to take a statement about the murdered businessman. AB tells them that the businessman had come to pick up plane tickets late one night, and afterward, when Amitabh had locked up the agency and was trying in vain to get a taxi in the drenching rain, had offered him a ride. We see Amitabh getting out of the rich man's car (Q: The rain's still pouring, and why is he getting out, as the the car appears to be in the middle of nowhere? A: Shut up, logic) and the tycoon driving off. Sadly, the police can’t see the flashback, so they warn Amitabh that they’ll be checking his story veeeery carefully. He isn’t worried, though, because he’s an honest, hardworking guy, and we know that his reason for getting out of the car in the rain in the middle of nowhere is to stop at a friend’s home to pay back a loan—you know, like you do after a late night at the office. (Q: Why? Because the friend, who clearly is not expecting AB, is desperate for cash? That night? In the rain? What, does his wife need an operation? A: Shut up, logic.)

Amitabh is a good guy at home, too, where we see him caring for saintly Maa, mischievous little  Billu, and sister, who loves to laugh. Farida tells Amitabh a joke, and the subtitles tell it this way: “There was a man who told that the fuse of his house was burnt. So he asked his neighbor, do you have any wires?” Hilarity ensues.

AB loves not only his family but his girlfriend, sexy Parveen. We see him standing her up for no very good reason (Q: Why? A: To give her a chance to be adorably angry, and for couple to have a song on a lonely beach--lonely, anyway, before the gypsy band and dancing girl appear.) Naturally, she forgives him.

Shortly thereafter, Amitabh has several episodes of the blaring music and jittery camerawork that signal a brain tumor in films like this. Oh noes! He even drops the aquarium full of fish he’s carrying as a gift for Life-Loving Farida (TM). (I couldn’t get over the fact that he was carrying an aquarium full of fish. Good lord, that must have been heavy. Q: Did the actual live fish flopping around in the broken glass on the sidewalk get rescued by some production assistant to flop again another day? A: Logic, you're making me sad now.) He sees a doctor, who looks at the brain scan and announces that it’s…. lymphosarcoma of the intestines?? No, a brain tumor. An operation? Well, that might leave AB a vegetable. But without it he'll die.

Amitabh concocts a plan to take responsibility for the murder so that his family can collect the giant reward. (Q: What? How would that work? A: Gotta agree with you on this one, logic.) Pretty soon, presto, he’s sentenced to death, leaving weepy Maa, Farida, and Master ji to sing this song:

Then in jail he collapses, and when he wakes up, he’s been successfully operated on—and he’ll live! (Q: Really? A: Shut up, logic.) But he’s sentenced to die, so he’ll die! What to DO? Escape and catch the real killer, obviously!

amitabh bachchan, majboorThis reminds me that George Kennedy played a bumbling cop in the Naked Gun films with Leslie Nielsen and that his fellow officer, Nordberg, was played by O.J. Simpson. As always, everything connects to everything.

Anyway, after the hair-raising escape, Amitabh collects Parveen and, through fence Mac Mohan, meets up with Pran, who seems to be the killer but is in fact a thief with a heart of gold (and a secret knowledge of what happened on the fateful night). After some more twists, mostly involving Amitabh trying to evade attention while wearing a highly visible red suede suit with black patch pockets, Pran helps Amitabh and Parveen meet with the murderer in India’s loneliest riverside shack.

amitabh bachchan, pran, majboor
There Pran gets shot, and the subtitles memorably translate his anguished gasp as “My insides are all squashed!” Parveen stays back with Pran to help him hold his gun (I know what you’re thinking; stop it). Amitabh drives like a maniac to get a doctor and then drives like a maniac back. The doctor sits in the back seat raising not a single complaint about the car speeding, passing on blind curves, or flying over an embankment to avoid Iftekhar and his men. (Q: Why does the camera carefully conceal the doctor’s face? A: Presumably because he’s vomiting most of the way.) Too late to save Pran, but Iftekhar arrives in time to hear the killer exposit his way into a jail cell and clear Amitabh for a return to the bosom of Parveen and the family.

Amitabh dances Farida around in her wheelchair, and unlike O.J.’s Nordberg in The Naked Gun, she does not careen in her out-of-control wheelchair down the steps of a stadium. Everyone except the tycoon and his murderer lives happily ever after.

Top that, George Kennedy! Top that, logic!

*While watching this I was thinking Alankar was the boy who so often grew up to be the Big B in 1970s films. But no, that boy was, of course, the taller, sadder Master Mayur. Instead of playing the Little B, Alankar often played the boy Amitabh needed to rescue (as in Don)--or arrived too late to save (as in Sholay). But whatever; the job of the boy in either case is to suffer and be quick about it.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

SALAAKHEN: Sunny Disposition

If you search online for images of Sunny Deol, most of the results show a mild-looking, if bulked-up, guy--one whose disposition seems to match his name. Is that what "Sunny Deol" means to most Indian film fans? To me, a "Sunny Deol movie" involves screams of rage and beatings and mayhem and bulging bloodshot eyes, but maybe I just haven't seen enough Sunny Deol movies.

Sunny Deol
Sunny as I know him
No, I take that back. I'm pretty sure I've seen more than enough Sunny Deol movies. And here's another one, Salaakhen ("Bars"--the jail kind, not the drinking-game kind) from director Guddu Dhanoa. Clearly, the filmmaker's real goal was to make a movie where a guy with anger issues goes on multiple rampages and kills a whole bunch of people in exotic ways. But when he pitched this film, describing how cool the explosions would look, he must have gotten some resistance. So instead the angry guy must have a backstory; he must have motivation, so we can root for him to do more killing and feel that the bad people are getting what they deserve, even if what they get is to be used as battering rams/hood ornaments on runaway buses or to fulfill whatever other scenario the most sadistic junior scriptwriter on the project can invent. We have to care about Sunny's problems.

So this Sunny Deol movie has a frame of rage and rampage enclosing other two other stories--one a tale of a noble fight against corruption, and the other a romance, complete with music and dancing. It's like three movies instead of just one. And the question now is, which Salaakhen will you hate most?

Your options are these:

Anupam Kher?
(a) The part with Anupam Kher as a Masterji so incorruptibly honest that he publicly accuses a local bigwig—Amrish Puri, as if you had to ask—of pulling strings to keep his rapist-murderer son out of jail. The son has a sneer and a flowing mane of hair and a vest with no shirt underneath to display his tree-trunk biceps. Amrish Puri has those scary eyes and a penchant for kidnapping and slaughtering people who oppose him in real-estate deals. Anupam Kher, who witnessed the crime, has only a worried wife (Farida Jalal) and the courage of his convictions. This courage is almost enough to take down the whole corrupt system. But the police, who are of course in Amrish Puri’s pocket, start gaslighting the witness, staging duplicate abductions, insisting on hours of questioning at the police station, driving the witness home backwards while claiming nothing is amiss (yes, really!). By the time Masterji is facing the fiendish lawyer who’s twisting his words on the witness stand, the poor man is so confused that he grabs the court officer's gun and shoots himself in the head. (I’ve been confused many times in my life, but never suicidally confused. I suppose I should be grateful yet again that I don’t have access to firearms.)

Lou hates spunk too.
(b) The love story between Sunny Deol--as the son of mild-mannered Anupam and gentle Farida--and Raveena Tandon, as a girl with a dream that someday she’ll fall in love with a man who accidentally bumps into her and then stares into her eyes as he stops her from falling down. Guess what happens. Did I mention that she has spunk? I hate spunk.

(summary of film climax)
(c) The part that was the whole point of making the movie, with Sunny wreaking vengeance on everyone connected with his father’s death and also on a fair number of innocent bystanders. There’s a courtroom scene in which an enraged Sunny kills the lawyer who has just successfully defended him on charges of murdering four people (apparently the innocent bystanders didn’t add to the body count). Then Sunny flashbacks his sad story to a panel of experts. By the time he’s wrapping up the story, we're seeing a lot of cars spinning through the air in slow motion, buses hitting transformers, and exploding gas stations. People are stabbed, machine-gunned, defenestrated*, and--I assume--hit by pieces of flying cars and buses. Then the experts give Sunny a light sentence because he was merely bringing about Justice, which causes him to become enraged again, kind of like the enraged pantomime Princess Margaret in the classic Python sketch. Pang! Right in the toast!

It's OK to vote for (d), all of the above.

*On the other hand, “defenestration” is just the best word.