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.