Saturday, March 21, 2015

mini reviews of the flims watched while traveling to/in/from the motherland and recovering from the jet lag appertaining thereto

(In the order I saw them.)

Kick 2014
Everything about this movie is a giant LOLWUT to me, but I sure had fun watching it. And pleeeeeease make Nawazuddin Siddiqui the next Bond villain.

Jodi Love Dile Na Prane 2014
Perhaps this film is a little bit too meta and precious for its own good: if memory serves (and it might not, given what time it was for my body clock when I watched this on the flight from Chicago to Dubai), it's a Bengali film about Bengali filmmakers being asked to make a romantic Bengali film at the behest of an investor who hopes the project will convey his love to his wife. I guess that's an interesting change from movies about movies having to meet commercial interests, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on the movie-in-the-movie's writer to come up with something really, really good—and as a result I'm not sure what to make of, and how much to invest in, the story he tells, which is based on his older cousin's dramatic love affair as a younger man. How much of it is "true"? Does that even matter? Does it actually help anyone to learn why life has turned out the way it has or to act on feelings that have been festering in isolation for decades? I'll happily take Abir Chatterjee as a lead in a love story, but romantically or artistically frustrated Calcuttans who make bad choices are a common enough occurrence that this iteration doesn't really stand out except for its unnecessarily unsatisfying end.

See the trailer here.

Roy 2015
Running the risk of going down in history as a Roy apologist, I will argue that the story of this film could have been really good but it was utterly ruined by the execution. Simply do not cast Arjun Rampal in a role demanding emotional expression—love, creative frustration, isolation, despair, grief—and expect it to work. Do not design the set of a writer's desk to include a giant wall-sized mirror over it and populate it with a typewriter, hourglass, pocket watch, and phonograph and dress him in a fedora and uncle bathrobe and expect us to take this narcissist hipster greasebag seriously. Do not cast Ranbir Kapoor if the only thing you need him to do is sulk—he can sort of pull it off, but whenever he comes on screen it's hard not to think of what a waste of his talents this movie is. Do not call the movie-within-a-movie Guns 3 if the only thing hit by a bullet is the ocean. Best line of the movie? Cyrus Broacha asking the fictional director "Is Guns 3 the end of the trilogy?" I have no idea if that was meant to be a legitimate question, but the fact that whoever was in charge of Roy left it in is all you need to know. The only thing this movie does well is serve as a bang-up tourism video for the resort in Malaysia where most of it is set.

Also, please, please don't have a backing dancer wear a Run-DMC t-shirt while others wear afro wigs and yet another person has a guitar with a confederate flag on it.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha 2015
I saw this in the cinema twice but didn't understand much of the dialogue either time, so I think I should wait until I have a DVD with subtitles to write about it much. However, based on what I did understand and on conversations with people after the film, every rave review you've heard is absolutely merited. For those of us who have, in the words of a friend on twitter, for whichever of a myriad of reasons violated society's definition of how femininity should be performed, this film has our hearts in its hands the whole time, and it is very respectful of that power. There is a scene early on in which Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) startles and is chastised by her parents and in-laws for dancing when they think she shouldn't be, even though everyone else is, that had me fighting back tears. I didn't catch why they were upset with her; going off of visuals and tone of voice, I got the impression they thought there was something unseemly in her joy, and therefore in her very nature, a critique I've spent way too much time in my life fearing despite never once receiving it (that I know of). She gets hers in the end, and watching her confidence and well-founded self-respect is so satisfying, especially in the face of a husband who so obviously lacks those things. My favorite part of the film may be the end: "Dard Karaara" is so perfectly perfect as a replica, as a celebration, as a do-over for this couple who through it prove doing things together as a team wasn't a one-off. Yes, it's a fantasy visually, but it's very real in spirit.

Happy Ending 2014
Why did everyone hate this when it came out? I think it's funny and breezy, and I appreciate the experiment of a story about people who are their own worst enemies instead of facing fantastic hurdles from the outside. As much as I like Saif Ali Khan, here quite in his good-at-duplicitousness form as someone struggling with the lies he tells himself*, the star of this for me is Preity Zinta as an appropriately exasperated grownup guiding hand. Govinda's great too and he's present just the right amount—more wouldn't have made sense. My only problem with Happy Ending is Kalki Koechlin's character, who is written too broadly to be believed as a threat or obstacle. Note how geography is used in this: the American context may be significant for characters who are searching, reinventing, running, and lying, in contrast with the words and emotional heft of the portion set in India.

* I think I've seen way more bashing of Saif Ali Khan for being too old to play this kind of moronic lovesick manchild character than is deserved, given that that is what many Hindi film heroes do much of the time, by actors who are older than he is, and in this film (as in Cocktail and Love Aaj Kal) the character is critiqued for being such. Also, it's not his major character type; if you look at his last ten years of films, he does other things more than he does this (Bullett Raja, Go Goa Gone, the Race films, Agent Vinod, Aarakshan, Kurbaan, Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, Omkara...).

Finding Fanny 2014
It's a truly ensemble story and production; no one outshines anyone else, and that's how it should be. Everyone is different and they also all change and grow (as should happen in a road trip film) in ways that feel genuine. Arjun Kapoor is a pleasant surprise, with his sullenness working in his favor for once. A bit like Happy Ending, these people are blocked in by their own heads, past mistakes and fears chaining them to discontent. I like that the rural and small town features of this story are not the limitations; your ghosts haunt you wherever you go, and home is where the heart is.

Break Ke Baad 2010
That drifting, blurry feeling of jet lag is the only possible excuse for watching this so long after any discussion of it could be possibly be relevant to anything (except possibly the vast improvement of Deepika Padukone's skills). This is a terrible film, and like Roy it's the execution that fails much more than the concept: taking time to think and demanding space when you need it are important life lessons, especially for women. However, following someone to another hemisphere when they've told you quite explicitly they don't want to see you is horrible, as is worming your way into their daily existence. The hero of this film is thus a stalker extraordinaire, hidden in the non-threatening face of a charisma-free Imran Khan (whom I usually like—I know many of you don't), creating a version of the ever-dangerous "nice guys finish last" lie that the socially inept, manipulative, and/or self-centered like to tell themselves. This movie is proof that Deepika hasn't always been as good an actor as she is now, and the two of them have absolutely zero chemistry.

Hisss 2010
You guys, this movie is fun. There are many ways in which it isn't good, and there are some sex scenes I did not need to witness, but seeing a new version of standard nagina films is a great way to spend a few hours. I love the snake-to-human, human-to-snake physical transformations, and I can even deal with the repeated violence against women in this because the nagina's retribution against reprehensible men is pretty satisfying (because she is, after all, an animal, not a human with a conscience who comes from a society with ethics). This is every bit the exploitation film that some earlier versions have been, but it's interesting to see a classic story wrangled into a modern setting (and the way religion has to pound down any skepticism about what's really happening) and with modern effects and permissiveness. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

I

Do you ever get the feeling that you may know what is happening in a film but you're not certain  you know why it's happening—or if there even is a coherent "why" other than entertainment value?
Having seen just one other work by Shankar (Endhiran), one other performance by Vikram (the Hindi Raavan) and just a handful of other Tamil films, I'm flying blind on this one and unqualified to guess much at that "coherent" why (or its potential absence). There are passages and details in I  that I simply cannot process, some of them because they blew some part of my brain out and I haven't yet reassembled the pieces. Here are some of my personal truths with this film.

  • In I, Shankar continues some of the ideas seen in Endhiran about creation and re-creation of individual people. In my opinion, this is a very rich and worthy theme to explore, so I am happy to see him take it on again. This time, the focus seems to be on the tension between self-and externally-authored changes—and one type of them being much riskier than the other. There are multiple characters whose very jobs and natures is to transform or excavate identity. By definition, bodybuilders, models, and makeup artists all ply transformation and some version, probably not internally-defined, of perfection. The film revels over and over in physical transformations (and even mutations)—a song depicting beauty and the beast, while another one turns the object of affection into literal objects, plus all the disfigurement, makeovers, and costume changes—but there are also several internal transformations in characters' emotions, outlooks, and priorities. Each person in this movie struggles in some way with questions of who they are and whether they will let other people define them. To me, this is an endlessly fascinating shuffling of cards in terms of how people respond and move forward, and I love it. Instances of this range from huge, like when Diya (Amy Jackson) gets her career out from under the thumb of the sexual harasser John (Upen Patel), to more concise yet still interesting, like when a character refusses money for a job that he wants to do because the work is meaningful to him.
  • The corollary to self-identity, knowledge and judgements about others, is not commented upon as directly but is also in play all the time. 
  • The hero treats the trans character terribly, but oddly (and thankfully) no one else does. Heroine and villains are fine with her, whereas the hero expresses repulsion at her advances rather than simply "No thanks, not interested" or "I'm in love with someone else." I do agree with the critiques of this film as homophobic and transphobic, and she is the only character who is condemned as much for who she is as for what she wants, but it's probably worth noting that this character is as fully-written and carries the same dramatic weight as several others. She is neither a one-off joke nor comic relief, and she is respected by all her professional peers. 
  • Speaking of repulsion, heeeey there, 25-year hero-heroine age difference. You might think that this is somewhat offset by the man-child nature of Lingesan (Vikram), but somehow that just jarred more awareness of the actor's actual age. It was less icky in the stage when they're a supermodel team (in which she is the more experienced), but I certainly didn't need any more of their romance for this and other reasons. Hey, I'm squicked out by Jane and Rochester too.
  • When this movie needs to make you to have an emotion about a person or situation, it really goes for it full tilt.
  • I have a hard time being sympathetic to any character distraught over an obstacle to their success in modeling. Even in this film, which treats the heroine's chosen profession with as much respect as films ever do and gives her strength and great autonomy in it and (at least in subtitles) illustrates how much actual acting and storytelling can go in to posing with products and demonstrates (and perhaps exaggerates) the role of modeling (and celebrity) in sales and thus business blah blah, I fundamentally give only the tiniest of figs about modeling and wish vehemently that these people could find something more worthwhile to do. Bodybuilding is not not compelling to me either, but at least in this film it is loosely associated with health by showing what muscle-experts can do in service of fitness.
  • Upen Patel has come a long way since 36 China Town. He wasn't nearly as bad as I feared, and he certainly looked the part (I was transfixed by how well he wore that sherbet orange leather jacket in his penultimate scene). Amy Jackson was also better than I expected, though modeling should be the easiest thing for her to do, so no points there. Neither of them seems a necessary choice for their role, and if this were a Hindi film I would gleefully consider my mental recasting options. 
  • Shankar's concepts of women...I don't know. They're at least complicated, I'll give him that. At times Diya is shown as strong ("Ladio" has moments of power and strength in it, visually and aurally) and smart and reasonable. She gets to make mistakes, learn from them (and notably without being particularly punished), and change her ways. She tries to escape danger multiple times, she takes charge of her career, and the film never makes her a whimpering accessory to fights nor has her encourage her boyfriend to beat the shit out of people. But at others Lingesan's dopey infatuation almost minimizes and flattens and dehumanizes her, and in his head his love turns her into actual objects imagined in very revealing outfits that he can hold, poke at, and even ride. It's visually fascinating and impressive, even magical, but philosophically I'm not on board. She has moments of very egotistical manipulation. I think I could deal just fine with all of this, chalking most of it up to her being a complicated character, if one established by and for the hero (nothing unique about that in films), but late in the film there is some regressive and very dangerous stuff about her marriage and worthiness thereof that made me groan "Oh noooo" out loud in the cinema. It reminded me very much of that horrible moment in Endhiran when Chitti saves the little girl in the bathtub from fire and the crowd shames both him and her for her being naked in public no matter the circumstances, except this time we have no Chitti to critique humans for their inhumane attitudes. To add to the pain, in I, much of the manipulation of Diya is by her mother. Fortunately, Diya has a great older female figure in her work life, an agent who is both supportive and realistic with her.
  • As long as this movie is (Rajeev Masand calls it "butt-numbing"), I was rarely conscious of the time. It has so much going on that there's always something to think about or shift attention to. I only yawned during the visually lovely but utterly standard "Pookkalae Sattru Oyivedungal," aka "love song in which we pose in many, many different color-coordinated outfits." "How many movies have we already seen?!?" said my very impressed viewing companions at interval. Its structure is unusual and so smart—you don't know exactly where you are in the story even on repeat iterations of segments. Multiple threads of Lingesan's history run concurrently but unevenly, and the transitions between them are not always expected.
  • The advertisements within the film are absolutely glorious and worth the price of admission. "Aila Aila" is a whirlwind of extreme creativity beautifully executed. The guillotine moment is my favorite thing in the whole movie. 

You may not be able to tell from everything I've just said, but I loved I. It's enormously entertaining and philosophically compelling. Even with its problems, it's actually about something, a trait I've recently realized can make all the difference for me in feeling positive about and wanting to engage with a filmVikram is a treat to watch. He did wonderful physical work on top of a significant structure of distinctive writing, wardrobe, and makeup, and the result was all effect rather than effort. There was no strain in all that work, just joy, which is such a treat. It's an exuberant, interesting film, and I can't wait to see more of Shankar's and Vikrams' filmographies.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

lunchtime poll #12: research on non-Indian fans of Bollywood

Hello friends. I'm posting a request from a graduate student in Chicago who is doing research on non-Desi fans of Bollywood. If you'd like to participate, keep reading to find a link to her survey and a way to get in touch with her!
 Hi! I need help! I am a huge fan of Indian film (even though I have absolutely no South Asian heritage) and I am trying to write a Masters thesis on people like me, non-Desi fans of Indian film. I am hoping some of the readers here will fit that description and be willing to participate. I created a survey through google forms, you can find it here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1NWvq9RFRYdOYS83kUA5xyofyA0xuYmzlLwETETD_Lxw/viewform?usp=send_form 
If you are willing to talk with me by email or skype in a little more detail, or if you have any questions about any of this, you can send me an email at mredlich.depaul [a]gmail.com. 
And even if you don't respond, thanks for listening and participating in this community! I had a great time reading through Beth's old posts and everyone's old comments.
(And if you've wondered why I categorize these posts as "lunchtime poll," click here.) 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sulemani Keeda

Great Expectations indeed.
My not-wholly-positive reaction to this film is partly an issue of my own expectation management. I realllllly wanted to like it; as its director-writer Amit Masurkar has pointed out, movies about movies pay little attention to writers, even though various industry types like to give lip service to the importance of story and there'd be nothing to produce, act in, or promote if there weren't scripts. How could a small, non-YRF-type film made about struggling film writers be less than hilarious and pointed?

Unfortunately, this is a film full of male assholes being assholes and then whining about how hard it is to succeed in a male-dominated world. DO SHUT UP. It's another instance of the young, relatively privileged male experience being assumed universal and apparently without any acknowledgment of other perspectives (which is how I felt about the otherwise adorable Big Hero 6 too, incidentally). Whether this is realistic to the world the film is portraying or not, it stinks. The women—primary love interest Ruma, side arc love interest Oona—are there just to reflect back men's ambitions, needs, and emotions or prompt men to experience the turmoil and soul-searching required as creative fuel for their own success. Think about it: do women in this film do anything that isn't in service to males? A mutual friend introduces Ruma to Dulal and Mainak, Dulal's mother provides cooking instructions over the phone, the silky-haired heroine in the producer's movie about a tough cop (spoiler-y image from this is at the end of the post), and even the unseen woman heard on a DVD of Last Tango in Paris from Mainak's laptop is in male-scripted sexual ecstasy consumed by men. Ruma, the one notable female character, is a whole person with plans and dreams of her own that don't involve any men at all, but we only see her through the eyes of Dulal. He rifles through her bedroom when she's out. She asks him more questions than he asks her. So boring. Sulemani Keeda is an unfortunate contrast in a year when big-scale films actually did put some thought, creativity, and focus on female roles and actors.

There is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to tell a story about males, and as male Twitter users love to remind me every time I bring up this topic, males are people too, so why can't they be representatives of the human experience? I agree that they can, but that argument ignores the reality in which most stories around the world exist and get told. There is something very wrong when men (and privileged, members of a dominant culture at that) are assumed to be the default representatives and conveyers of the human experience. Filmi Geek and I were talking about this tendency, and she pointed out that when most of the stories you consume reflect you, it's hard to notice that other people aren't reflected. And of course this one film is only responsible for its own version of the "male experience=only/all experience" problem, not every other film's indulgence in it (though it is certainly contributing to the problematic tradition that films of the future will inherit), but somehow I have snapped. What Sulemani Keeda tells me is that even men whose profession is to create won't imagine a world with human-like women in it.

Granted, Dulal and Mainak are hardly in a position to use their imaginations freely. Despite their pretensions, they are the lowest of the low, groveling to studio office guards and having to feebly ask for money for their work because of course nobody hiring them bothers to offer or explain payment or give them an actual contract (they're even punished for asking). They're in a line of work that is simultaneously attractive and repulsive. When it comes to creativity, they're clearly no better off making either of the options shown in the film (European-inspired "outside the box" or formulaic crap, both for a producer's kid) than the tv writers they disdain.

Observation of the film industry is Sulemani Keeda's strong suit, and it has some assured, funny, and important moments. I want a 20-minute version of this film that is only the guys bumbling through the industry; this part of their lives is much more empathetic and interesting. Some of the depictions of writer life are familiar from various people I have run across online, most notably people who call themselves writers but take every excuse not to do any work (#amwriting) and present themselves in the most slacker-ass ways to people they need to impress. I can easily read Mainak as largely a figure of ridicule. I love how he uses book stores to hit on women without paying any attention to what book he's actually holding and later proudly proclaims that he's a writer, not a reader. The more public scenes of socializing are also familiar (that poor girl and her response to Tagore [oh, she counts as a woman who's just doing her own thing with no need for male reaction! yay!], the appearance of a plaid fedora at the end of the film), and I am so very, very glad that I am too old to have to deal with people in settings like that and I pity the good souls who do.

Despite the anger that burbled over in the beginning of this post, there are other things I really like about Sulemani Keeda. It's interesting to look at, especially the Bombay streets and the inside of the Mainak and Dulal's flat, because of course they have a DVD of Udaan and The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics.
All the music makes sense, and "Sarangi Blues" is lovely and feels genuinely contemplative. The acting is pretty darn great—I really believe all of these people, which is part of what is so frustrating about them—and the cameos by real industry figures are funny and pleasingly random, showing how project relevance is not necessarily a consistent factor in the life of a flailing writer. I even like the bleakness: at least for dudes like Mainak and Dulal, whose actual talents are never really commented on or made clear to us, if you're floundering in The System, you may have to either give in or get out. Like Anupama Chopra says, the letdown here is, ironically, the script.

If you want to see Sulemani Keeda without leaving your house, it's available on Amazon Instant (at least in the US—I'm not sure about other countries). I've just spent some time digging around for legal streaming options, particularly for recent Hindi releases, and I'm pleased to report that I found more than I had expected. Netflix only has a handful of newer things, but there's also Hulu (again, only a few), Amazon Instant, Spuul, Eros Now, and more impressively, iTunes and Google Play. I'm most excited about this last one; combined with it not requiring a subscription and having a longer rental period than iTunes (at least on the films I've compared), I'm choosing it for catching up on several other films that came out in 2014. (Again, I have no idea if these services are available outside the US or what they might offer. It'd be great to form a master list somewhere.)

For fun, a spoiler-y image from a film within the film. Read the credits.



Friday, December 26, 2014

PK: if only its teeth were as mighty as its ears

For every point I want to raise about PK, a counterbalance also presents itself. Maybe that explains the runtime. Anushka Sharma and Sushant Singh Rajput's romance is sickly-sweet, yet in the gloss is clear evidence of their physical relationship. A kitten and a puppy are unnecessarily manipulative, but Anushka's crumpling face in moments of disappointment and loss feels bang-on. A devout father's decades of obedience to his guru are shaken too easily, but his revelation leads to satisfyingly improved parenting. There is only one real woman of importance—again, for no necessary reason—and another exists solely to provide the hero with a tool he needs to navigate earth, but the heroine does get to talk about work with a female friend and relies on her for success on the job. Sanjay Dutt's character is homophobic in a way that indicates he has no concept of actual homosexuality (we've all seen men hold hands on the streets in India, writers), but he's otherwise sweet, nonjudgmental, and helpful. I wanted more numerous and more expansive song sequences (I'm one of those odd ducks who likes watching Aamir Khan dance, because I think he uses dance as an extension of his characters and characterizations more than other actors do), but "Tharki Chokro" is perfect visually, musically, choreographically, and narratively. PK's "remote" looks like it was stolen from the Ra.One props trunk, but it's a wonderful nod to the beloved-by-me locket half of golden age masala. Dressing people in "wrong" clothing and yelling "Oho! Gotcha!" to prove that religious identity is not innate but a human construct seems facile, but watching poor PK bumble from one faith practice to another cracks me up—why is it that you're supposed to offer a coconut to a god in a mandir but get thrown out on your ear if you try it in front of a crucifix in a church in the same city?

As far as critiques of oppression and exploitation in the guise of religion go, this is no Mahaparush or Devi, nor is it even Guidewhich is the only Hindi film I have seen that I can recall having anything remotely critical to say about religion or religious figuresBut of course it probably isn't trying to be, either, and I commend Rajkumar Hirani and crew for making an entertaining, relatively light-hearted and supple movie that is actually about something—it actually is a critique of how religion can be used by leaders and worshippers alike to both cover and spoon-fed a multitude of sins. If only it did more. I want more, and I want it to be harsher. These were easy targets taken down easily and with great blobs of cheese. Is the tone gentle because a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine down or because the filmmakers don't want to insult their audiences (or the censor board and the great Indian "sensibilities). Even the title might be read as a cop out: is this outsider right, or is he just drunk? The film can have it both ways. Aamir ex masala machina doesn't really solve much (and does anyone even mention investigating the deadly bomb blast?)—one crooked guru on one tv show isn't an answer to anything, and as others have pointed out (like Uday Bhatia here), this big finish elides into and trades on the reality of the actor's tv career.

As with a few other films of 2014—Bobby Jasoos, Revolver Rani, Gundayand, from what I read, Mary Kom and Mardaanai (which I have not seen yet)—the makers of PK have some better ideas in concept than they do in execution. My gut sense is that the very existence of PK, and involvement in it by such big names, is important and may even be one of the year's significant gifts to the future of mainstream Hindi cinema. This is also a film about humans, looking at why we matter and why we should use our powers to help one another. "Well, at least they tried" (and "grumble grumble censor board and political wingnuts") is an unsatisfying assessment, but when other big names have phoned in even their basic concepts or treated humanity cheaply or failed at even being entertaining, thoughtful effort is no small thing.

Monday, December 15, 2014

mini reviews

100 words each on the weird (even for me) assortment of films I've seen in the last two months. Gotta get the writing motor going again.

Lukochuri 1958
Kishore Kumar has a double role as twins in this Bengali film about the sisters they love,
twin-related mix-ups (surprise), parental approval, and the world of Bombay filmmaking. There are other good performers too (like Mala Sinha), but it's 100% his film. The best moments are the digs at the film industry
and this brilliant, loony song that the non-industry Kishore does while impersonating his singer brother, making a point about the lack of quality in today's films and music.
And lest you forget this is a Bengali film, the eyes of RabTag are upon thee even in Bombay!

Thana Theke Aschi 1965
I don't know how to say anything about this story of death, interrogation, and knowledge without spoiling it, so just know that you should reserve judgement of it until the very last frame.
Atmosphere!
If you don't speak Bengali (or don't watch with someone who does), you'll probably be incredibly lost. It's director Hiren Nag's first film; his third, Andha Atit, discussed below, continues this thoughtful, unconventional-ish use of Uttam Kumar.

Jibon Mrityu 1967
The Bengali original of the Dharmendra and Rakhee film of the same name, which I have seen twice and cannot remember anything about other than the two leads having a fun classroom debate and Dharmendra's disguises. Beyond the emo suffering and revenge-seeking by Uttam Kumar and the sparks he has in the romantic bits with Supriya Debi*, this version, also by Hiren Nag, doesn't stand out to me either. Aside: I find the Uttam-to-Dharmendra conversion fascinating—it makes little sense on paper, yet it works. Does it happen elsewhere in addition to Chadmabeshi/Chupke Chupke?

Sansar 1971
Another subtitle-less Soumitra film, apparently about industrial espionage with contrasting depictions of class (?)
Much of the runtime is spent in people's homes, and I like comparing these interiors and what they suggest about the characters. In these pairs, the left shows the middle-class family's home (the inventors of the textile equipment in the cycle rickshaw above) and the right, their bosses'. One plays music live, the other has a groovy hi-fi. One comforts each other, one clutches a fluffy lap dog.

Enjoy the Many Moods of Soumitra: relaxed, annoyed, action sequence, and menacing with a hockey stick.
Soumitra + sports equipment = cognitive dissonance.

Andha Atit 1972
Evidence that Uttam Kumar was not afraid to let himself age beyond romantic lead and simplistically heroic behavior...which is not to say this is his finest acting, because it certainly isn't. It's an interesting little mystery that spans about ten years and weaves together personal dramas that don't seem to relate. I had no idea where it was going. Supriya Debi is good as his determined, distressed wife.
Warning: if you watch this on the Angel youtube channel, be aware that the description on each upload has major spoilers.

Bond 303 1985
I simply do not buy Jeetendra as a spy, but this film is so full of other delights that I can overlook him. Plenty of bleep-bloop equipment, Parveen Babi bursting through a ceiling and kicking ass, vengeful Helen, a mangy bear-suit monster,
and Tom Alter being named Tom Alter. When a magician conjures up a backing band wearing black capes emblazoned with skulls, there is vast glee both in the thing itself and in the realization that there are still such wonders waiting to be discovered.
Not quite Wardat, but fun—and recommended.

Classic Dance of Love 2005
Babbar Subhash has directed Mithun in films like Disco Dancer, Dance Dance, and Commando, all terrible in their own way yet not a patch on this. Mithun has advanced into villain,
a hypocritical guru type who teaches people to eschew sensual pleasures to be successful, leaving "hero" open to this guy, who is utterly unqualified to attempt advanced filmi tasks like mesh shirts and arm-flings.
Sexuality is a weapon in this movie, used against and by women. It's an okay idea for a story, but there's zero chemistry, and the continual leering over the heroine's body feels exploit-y.

Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5) 2012 (?)
Five stories are linked by a 500 note. There are passages when this film is far too on-the-nose—a madman standing all alone in frame after frame shouting his manifesto about the evils of money before political thugs arrive to bludgeon him—but when it focuses on what 500 can mean to different people, it's pretty interesting. The middle segment about a confident young woman who values her friends's needs over workplace rules and demands is the most subtle and compelling.

Revolver Rani 2014
At this point, the only thing that could make me want to see another corrupt politician from a Hindi-speaking non-metropolis is flipping something in the formula, so the idea of Revolver Rani is attractive. I'm not sure the film contains and supports all that goes into and out of Kangana's wild, violent, passionate Rani.
The film does not question a woman running in a man's world or cornering a male love interest in ways heroines often get treated,
but what is intended as complexity feels like scattered pieces (I wrote "Gabbar Singh/Miss Piggy/Lucille Ball" in my notes).

Happy New Year 2014
Save for a few very precise, specific moments—the Shalimar nod, Abhishek's snake dance, Sonu Sood at the steam pipes, the giant Indian flag on the jumbotron, SRK handing Jackie Shroff a [spoiler]—HNY disappoints me. SRK's character is a total ass (such hatred that movie expressed for Deepika's character's vocation and social position), Boman's too clownish, and everyone's underdeveloped. Thieves hiding as dancers is a great concept for a filmi spectacular, but here the heist and the dance competition distract from one another somehow. Come on, Farah.

* I know.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

spy vs spy: Ankhen (1968) and Kulla Agent 000 (1972)

Life is very good indeed when coincidence hands you two top-notch prime-vintage spy films. Life is even better when you happen to have an academic paper called "Bodies, Bollywood, and Bond: the Evolving Image of Secret Agents in Hindi  Spy Thrillers Inspired by the 007 Franchise" (by Krzysztof Lipka-Chudzik)* that includes a taxonomy and chronology of Bollywood spies, among other interesting discussions. There's absolutely no reason to compare these two films other than I wanted to say "spy vs spy" in the title of this post, but now that I've made that choice I'm going to stick with it. Maybe I can file this under public service and hope that the list of characteristics will help you decide which one to watch first, because believe me, you're gonna want to watch them.

In the aforementioned academic paper, there's a discussion of a technicality that points out that that many of the Indian movies most of us think of as "spy movies" are not really about spies at all: more often than not, and probably for reasons about the accepted not-terribly-shady morality of heroes, the heroes actually work for the police rather than for an intelligence agency. They may be gathering information while in disguise, but they're doing it to serve and protect communities or families, not dealing in espionage at the level of national governments. The ethically gray world of a spy doesn't fly often in masala, especially without the context of a childhood trauma that justifies everything as revenge and vigilante justice, and the lifestyle that Bond enjoys is out of bounds for the censor board. ** There are exceptions—the Gunmaster G-9 films—but even very recent movies like Ek Tha Tiger and Agent Vinod omit the womanizing.

mission and actual spying
These films have very different tones: Ankhen is the serious one, almost devoid of any comic moments (and even Mehmood manages to get his spying-related tasks accomplished, which is a good thing, because he plays Q), whereas Kulla Agent 000 is one of those projects that blows out as many stops on the fun-o-meter as budget will allow, energetically taking on many standard spy movie elements but never afraid to have its spooks be goofs.

In Ankhen, there's a brief reference to terrorist activities in the northeast, and the song during the opening titles is full of text and imagery about eyes and vigilance (rather than surveillance). Fascinatingly, the heroes of this film are not government agents at all: they're civilians who draw upon their (or their families') past as freedom fighters to do what's right for the country they love. It's an inherited yet also voluntary mission. That sense of duty seems to be missing in Kulla Agent. Dwarakish has signed up for his own fun and adventure. The whole setup of that film is instead comic: the diminutive hero initially fails his attempt to work for a government agency, but they eventually take him on and give him a mission and an ├╝ber-competent partner. The upload I watched has no subtitles, so I don't know exactly what the mission is, but my impression is that it...well...it doesn't seem to be rockets or weapons or assassination or overthrow of governments, so maybe it's smuggling? Anyhoo, I don't know what these guys are up to, and it doesn't seem a any higher-level threat than any standard masala baddie with his crates of stolen statues or gold bars.

gadgets and other accessories
If you read Go Fug Yourself, you'll be familiar with one of its authors sometimes just saying "WORDS" when she cannot express her amazement. I feel very "WORDS" (in a good way) about the gadgets and props in both of these movies. Ankhen has several walls of bleep-bloop control panels, a transmitter hidden in the base of a Krishna idol (used by a villain, interestingly), a mask that changes the identity of its wearer (think "Hrithik" in Don 2), and a cage that drops into a tiger pit.
Kulla Agent is not outdone: a gold-covered car, transmitters hidden in owl statues and terrifying dolls with bird mouths and light bulb eyes, a villain in disguise as a guru leading stoned-looking hippies in "Hare Krishna," and evil dogs whose attacks are clearly voiced by humans going "Rrrr! RrrruFFFF!"

ladies
What's better than a vintage spy film in which a woman has anything to do with the actual mission?  Two such films in which the women have everything to do with the mission! Ankhen pairs Dharmendra with Mala Sinha, an agent so good that he didn't realize in the first phase of their acquaintance that she was an agent. She does her own share of the legwork, she uses weapons, she is injured in the finale fight sequence because she's fighting, not because she's tied up to a post as a hostage. Additionally, Dharmendra's sister in the film (Kumkum) takes dramatic, violent, self-directed action in support of her brother's mission. She has the sort of Mother India role, balancing love of her child with duty to her community (or nation, in this case). Nobody comes to her aid, nor does she need them to.

Jyothi Lakshmi is mindblowing as Dwarakish's partner in Kulla Agent 000. I've seen her in two other films (the KSR Doss projects James Bond 777 and Mosagallaku Mosagaadu), but in those she played was part of the villain crew and did not get quite the attention and vindication that heroines do. Like Mala Sinha, as far as I can tell she's every bit as critical to the mission as Dwarakish, and as one would expect from a Telugu masala action star, she has a ton of physical work, not only dancing and thrusting to moaning cabaret numbers (she's introduced slithering between the spread legs of shirtless men in blackface who later trap her with a net, which is not at all troubling, nope)
but also punching, kicking, flinging men across the room, etc. She's like Helen, Bindu, and Sunny Deol combined. For example, in one particularly amazing scene, she's just flung on a leopard print coat over her Emma Peel-esque black knits and opened her front door to go track down a lost Kulla when a giant Native American (yes, that kind of Indian, complete with braids and tomahawk, and also not at all troubling, nope)

assassin punches her in the face and sends her crashing through a plate glass window on the other side of the room. They fight for several minutes around her bedroom before she finishes him off with a swish of her hair and then hops into her convertible.

gentlemen
The heroes of these two films really exemplify the differences in the projects: there's nothing funny about Dharmendra in Ankhen, but he's relatively restrained, even in his many disguises and wigs, none of which is used for gags or big song sequences. He fights only minimally—his most notable brawl is with a tiger (and now I can check him off of the list of "Hindi film heroes who grunt at stuffed tigers")—and he behaves as the patriotic son of a patriot ought. His father, Nasir Hussain, is the organizer of the mission, but he comes across as an ineffective, doddering grandpa rather than a mastermind.

In a nod to Bond I wasn't expecting, his character is presented as irresistible to women, with both Mala Sinha and Zeb Rehman swooning for him instantly and discussing their attraction out loud multiple times.
The movie presents Dharmendra's sexuality as matter-of-factly as it does the skills or strengths of any other characters. It's not a boast, but it's a resource and for the sake of the mission he'll use it as much as he can. Like Bond, then, Dharmendra can seduce simply by entering a room in a suit. It's great casting—I can't think of any other actor in 1968 who could believably be presented this way (not even Shashi). Unlike Bond, of course this seedha-saadha Hindustani ladka will have none of it while he's on the clock, telling Mala that maybe he'll think about love once his work is done.

Kulla Agent is brilliant at giving its hero a chance to shine as both spy and clown (as it does Jyothi Lakshmi too). I can't think of many other films that let either hero or heroine take their work but not themselves terribly seriously. Bunty aur Babli comes to mind, but all that blend of competence + "wheee!" changes with their romance and pregnancy; fortunately this film doesn't bother with such a plot, so everyone can just have fun scheming and punching and dancing.

villains
As with the gadgets, it's tough to pick a favorite. Kulla Agent's chief bad guy seems to be named Boss and he has big curly hair, wild scarves, and shiny sunglasses, unusual torture techniques, and a lair hidden in temple ruins with giant dragons and a dance floor where we see a snake dancer who wears a cobra-head sock puppet on one hand...and now your argument is invalid. Boss's number two is an eyebrow-waggling, cackling fiend in a variety of disguises whom I'd love to see in a film of his own (he's in the kurta standing next to the gold car in the picture above). But Ankhen has a pretty great enemy too. That vague terrorist-y foreign (or separatist?) power that despises India has Jeevan as the chief on the ground, wearing military paraphernalia and overseeing facilities such as a chamber with spiked walls that close in on victims, pyramids of metal barrels (not full of Steve, sadly), a zillion dudes with machine guns, self-destruct capability, and miles of tunnels connecting the hideout to exit points around town. Jeevan does his usual thing in just the right amounts, but Sujit Kumar gets to be the most interesting baddie; this is the biggest role I've ever seen him in, and he fits the effective-but-not-flashy tone of the project.

music
Just like James Bond 777, Kulla Agent is a movie that you can still relish if it just plays in the background. In fact, you probably should try that, instantly turning your daily goings-on into thrilling espionage. Hints of James Bond music are there, along with Swingle Singers-ish nonverbal vocals and other 60s pop and rock sounds, especially surf guitars. There's even a song by Kishore Kumar, whose sense of fun is perfect for Dwarakish. I'm also lumping dancing under this topic too because I can't talk about Jyothi Lakshmi without extolling her as a dancer. She's wild, exuberant, and unrefined, and it's not clear to me whether she's supposed to be read as sexy or funny or both. Little about her matches today's beauty standards, but her characters don't seem to have time to bother with what society thinks of them because they're too busy enjoying their songs and then saving the nation or taking revenge—and are in much better physical shape than most of their critics, whom they can toss across the room with one hand. She is a warrior, a joy, an icon, and a national treasure.

Ankhen...is just not as interesting to listen to. It's got a solid soundtrack by Ravi but nothing has stuck in my head nearly as much as "Kulla! Agent! Zero zero zero!" Its one standout feature is that the setting in Beirut yields some stylish and appropriate Middle Eastern influence. Oh, and the title song under the opening credits is an exercise in overkill in all the right ways. In case you hadn't gotten the idea from the title, the illustrations and lyrics will make sure you know what this film is about. I don't know why a giant head in the clouds has sunglasses on, nor whether another sky-head with its hand on India's northern border looks protective (as the words indicate) or just plain predatory.

locale and architecture
It isn't really fair to pit the two films, because surely Ankhen has a much bigger budget. It has location sequences in Beirut and Japan,
providing the Bond-esque globe-trotting handily while (to my surprise) avoiding regional stereotypes other than in clothing for disguises. Mala Sinha's character is described as half-Japanese, which also adds "exotic" points; in a mark of true class, her loyalty to India is never questioned, and her skills and contributions to the mission are described as top-notch. She's also affirmed as a worthy partner for the Indian hero, both romantically and professionally. For all their talk of the motherland, these characters appreciate a fairly cosmopolitan world. I also like how the cinematographer has some shots down tunnels or hallways that evoke the Bond gun-barrel.

As mentioned, I'm not sure that the villain and threat in Kulla Agent aren't entirely domestic; if I'm right, there's no need for international travel or locations. Either way, the film does plenty with its local evil, so much so that some of the bad guy's facilities are accessed through a Hindu temple whose columns slide and walls flip around to reveal communications equipment. The action moves out into the countryside a few times, including car chases and a fight in a moving jeep.  

style and class
Both of these movies have tons of ishtyle. Ankhen aims for, and relatively hits, Bond-ish sophistication. There's something about the look of this film that feels like "What if a few of the characters of Waqt took up a side line in espionage?" It has swanky nightclub songs, there are lots of men in dinner jackets, Mala Sinha in particular is often very fashionably or filly-ly attired, and characters slip into undercover roles as royalty. Kulla Agent isn't classy and all because that isn't a relevant yardstick. Kulla Agent is about rowdy fun and cartoony danger. Sauve would be boring to these characters (unless they were in disguise, and even then it's hard to imagine either of the leads looking at home in a tux or satin gown).

So?
Frankly, these are both remarkable films. Kulla Agent 000 is huge fun, especially if you want to see a woman hold her own in a dangerous world as part of some professional drive and not having a tragic backstory/punishment to justify/tidy up her physical glee. I haven't talked as much about the hero because he's just not as compelling to me, but he's perfectly enjoyable, and he's a good entry into any list of diminutive action heroes, at least as their films present them. It reminds me of what a late 70s Manmohan Desai spy film might have been like if someone stopped Prayag Raj from writing the romance and family side plots. It's rock 'em sock 'em focused abandon.  Ankhen is all about restraint, carefully employing elements that often run amok in Hindi masala: comic actors, widows, fathers with weepy stories of the past, unrequited love, patriotism, rambling finale brawls. All of these things are present, but writer-director Ramanand Sagar keeps them all on the mission, so to speak. It would be wrong of me to let you have the impression that Ankhen is staid. It's not. It's just tight, which is quite amazing given everything that is rolled up into the story. And I didn't even tell you about Mala's sombrero and capri pants in Japan
or the little boy whose birthday party theme seems to be historical world leaders (I just don't know who this could be with a small-ish black mustache and his arm thrust out straight),
who is kidnapped directly from it and thus spends the rest of the film getting tortured while wearing his teeny tiny pteruges. How's that for a sentence you never thought you'd read?
B-movie or A-list? Both get an A+ from me.

Big thanks to Die Danger Die Die Kill for putting Kulla Agent on my radar.

* This essay is part of a larger collection titled From Highbrow to Lowbrow: Studies of Indian B-Grade Cinema and Beyond, and a pdf of the whole thing is available here.
** The more I think about this paper's discussion of how mainstream masala heroes can't have the playboy lifestyle and complicated, shifting morality of a spy, the more I think of the rebooted Don films, particularly the second one. But of course he's a villain, or at least an anti-hero, and I wonder if the second film would have had legs at all if the lead character weren't played by Shahrukh, whom we've all been trained to like whether or not we actually like him.