Monday, June 01, 2009

Boston Bollywood blitz

Over the course of a nine-day trip to Boston, I managed to squeeze in as many movies. Yowza. Before they disappear in a blur, I'll share a few quick thoughts on each.

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)
I've rewatched this twice in the last month, and while I still love Parvarish more for its effortless, gleeful fun and dil-squish (and Vinod Khanna displaying energy and smiles as opposed to being just a plank of older brother self-righteousness [except at the end, which is fantastic and made all the better by the contrast with Amar's usual persona]), I completely understand why people would vote this the number one Foundation Masala film. Perfect for the next meeting of your local chapter of the South Asian Cinema Study Society (i.e. gathering of Bollywood fans in someone's living room); especially if everyone has already seen it, the opportunities for commentary both serious and silly are soooo rich.

Black Mail (1973)
Super-sweet Dharmendra is a perfect foil for smarmy Shatrughan Sinha in this love story. The forest fire action sequence is particularly impressive. Rakhee looks gorgeous and I wish I could remember if she had anything to do than...um...look gorgeous. Oh! And convincingly fall in love via letters, a plot device I adore.

Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)
A metric ton of cute! I missed a few moments of the less comedic bits towards the end because I got distracted by a 1983 magazine cover featuring Shabana Azmi and Mithun Chakraborty (together!) in black leotards and gold braided headbands, but I'm still confident in calling this movie hilarious and adorable. It has everything I like about comedic romances from black and white movies, namely miffed and cheeky verbal sparring and very sweet realizations of mutual affection. Fred and Ginger could be at home here (though would Fred ever play a mechanic? discuss). I'm now desperate to experience more Kishore Kumar in front of the camera, and I have new respect for Madhubala's range - she's so funny! The songs, of course, are all wonderful; my favorite is "Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si," a flat-out brilliant song, with expressive singing (and movement) by Kishore and fun little touches like auto shop instruments.

Sooooo cute!

Dance Dance (1987)
Death by movie. Awful. Had to turn it off after about 40 minutes. Children, shut up with yer halva! Poor Smita Patil - what in blazes was she doing in this mess?

Dev.D (2009)
I need to watch this again before feeling like I can really write about it, but in short it nailed all the things I hate about Devdas (the character and the story as I know it form the 2002 film) and then changed them in ways that I found meaningful and totally compelling. I'm close to thinking that the writers indulged in creepy, pathetic Devdas-y-ness a smidge too much, risking making my ire so great that I disengaged before they had a chance to make their refreshing changes; that's one of the things I want to keep in mind next time I watch. Loved the colors, the music, the back story for Chanda, the evolution of Paro and her ability to disentangle and move on, the overall hopeful message that we can learn from our mistakes and that the first big thing in our lives, the most dramatic thing, the most complicated thing, is probably not the right and true thing.

documentary double-header: Fearless: The Hunterwali Story (1993) and Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973)
After seeing their stories one after the other, it's tempting to compare the lives and impact of these two film legends of Indian cinema. Neither Indian by birth or ancestry, both women moved to India as young children and made their lives there - and what a great masala image that would make! Can't you imagine little firangi Mary Evans and Helen donating blood to Nirupa Roy and then, independently, wandering lonely down a street singing about their long-lost parents, their two tunes coming together into a heart-rending duet? I am so writing that! - and, if I have the facts straight, they became famous in cinema by doing things no one else would or could do. The only other easy similarity that comes to mind is that both are very physical performers, though at different times and in different contexts. My semi-educated guess is that there's something significant in each one's popularity that she did things typical film heroines don't - Nadia displaying physical strength in uncontrolled, unglamorous ways and Helen embodying and demonstrating such corporeal, forward sexuality. Fearless is a wonderful introduction not just to Nadia but the world of Wadia [oh how cute, their names rhyme!] films and philosophy. If you're unfamiliar with these movies, as I was, read Memsaab's post on Fearless and revel in those fantastic images. Banno, now that I understand more about that icon, my hat is more than ever off to you.

I wish the same spirit underlaid Queen of the Nautch Girls. Its footage is as astounding as you imagine a clip show of Helen (both in front of the camera and behind the scenes) could be, but the narration is a nasty piece of work, dripping with disdain for mainstream Indian films past and present (and probably future too, if they had bothered to speculate). Whoever wrote these words - James Ivory, according to imdb, which breaks my heart to believe - deserves the most ironic masala punishment possible (being forced to watch Dharam Veer for 1,000 consecutive hours while Amitabh hits them over the head with the crocodile from Shaan?). They're such a stark contrast to the footage and first-person contributions from Helen, and you have to wonder how this seemed like a coherent project: why would you bother working on a subject you clearly have no interest in truly understanding? I'd like to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt on this one, but it's hard to imagine an interpretation of the text and tone of the narration that can find them anything other than dismissive andoversimplifying. While I did not pick up on such an attitude towards Helen herself (her performances, talents, and contributions to cinema), it's faint praise to say "Well, at least the documentary is generally appreciative of the value of its principal subject and tends not to underestimate or deride it." How can a person love Helen but hate Bollywood? It makes no sense to try to extract her, or any star performer, from the context of the film industry that she shapes and in which she thrives. Yech.

Godmother (1999)
A personal must-see from the well-stocked collection of Filmi Geek. The quick exposition of the bleak and brutal world the characters of Godmother inhabit left me wanting more explanation, or at least discussion, of why things were as horrible as they were. But once I got past not understanding and just accepted the setup, I was hooked in the story, even though the title alone implied that I had a sense of what was coming. Despite its cast and crew, there was something filmi about this movie to me, especially when I closed my eyes during some of the violent parts (of which there are many) and realized it sounded exactly like a 70s dishoom-dishoom. Shabana Azmi's portrayal of a smart person grappling with the question of absolute power and corruption is both restrained and deep; she seems to let the madness of the world around her speak for itself, and very effectively too, I might add. (Filmi Geek has a different take on Shabana's performance, and she certainly has more Shabana under her belt than I.) As in Dev.D, I was very relieved that some of the characters in Godmother have an arc, this time towards becoming more community-minded and more genuinely caring. Still, not a film for when you feel the world is cruel and hopeless. Bring your teddy bear.

Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007)
This was my third viewing of HTPL and I like it more and more each time. My only real problem with this film comes at the end, when some of the couples get their problems tied up in a bow and some of them are left with the hard work of their new lives barely begun. I guess that's how life goes, but it seemed so unfair to me to leave Amisha Patel's ever-hopeful Pinky oblivious to the giant iceberg lurking at the heart of her marriage - and it's not even her own struggle to work on. The person with the softest heart got the worst deal. Booooo! Raima Sen's Milly, too, is haunted by a question mark without knowing it; her uptight husband's drug-fueled afternoon on the boat seems to have taken root a bit once the buzz wears off, but it's not clear whether he's really changed. Part of me realizes this movie is just one brief episode in the lives of these characters and not everyone's problems can be solved on a bus trip, not even in Bollywood; part of me wishes all of them got to be solidly, happily established. But other than that, I love this movie. My issues with the end stand out because I think the rest of it is so nearly perfect. Shabana Azmi and Boman Irani might be my favorite jodi in contemporary films.

SHALIMAR (1978)
Teleport City has been telling me about this movie for so long that I always think of it in capital letters. Dharmendra! Zeenat! Rex Harrison! John Saxon! Shammi Kapoor! A giant ruby! An island mansion full of deadly assassins! The world's top thieves assembled in one remote location! "Tribals"! Aruna Irani in a song that gives the world the brilliant line "Cha cha cha! Bahut achcha!"

(Just try and stop saying that over and over again now that you've heard it. Bet you can't.) Not enough real emotion to be masala and not enough slickness to be Bond, Shalimar is unlike anything I've seen. It's not quite whole-heartedly insane enough to be "so bad it's good," but it is certainly both very bad and very good. Dharmendra dons some wonderful camouflage, John Saxon becomes a deified corpse, Sylvia Miles walks a tightrope in Keds and a pink leotard, and Rex Harrison mouths Hindi very badly. The potentially fesity and butt-kicking Zeenat is totally wasted; however, the wig she's stuck in is so ugly that it would have distracted from any opportunity for acting anyway. Highlight (apart from "Cha cha cha! Bahut achcha!"): in order to prevent Zeenat, his long-lost love, from undertaking a dangerous task, Dharmendra embraces her and squeezes her head between his gianormous hands, upon which she drops to the floor in a puddle. Dharmendra death grip (though she revives later, so I guess it's more like Dharmendra knock-out grip)! Yeah baby! View from the Brooklyn Bridge has a more thorough writeup with pictures here. If you feel you must watch Shalimar, I highly recommend viewing it with Memsaab, who was full of appropriate sound effects of delight or horror as each scene unfolded. Maybe she'll release a DVD of it with a "Memsaab's Commentary" track....

10 comments:

Mister Naidu said...

Wow. Thanks for the Boston Bollywood Blitz! Fun read! Couldn't agree more about Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls. Must be watched with finger on mute button to silence the narrator's nasty commentary. Still, must viewing for Helen's clips and the behind the scenes footage. Her yoga exercises obviously aided her greatly in her amazing performances.

Shalimar is a fun film with a great RD Burman Hindi-lounge soundtrack. Love One Two Cha Cha Cha. Great groove and vocal...plus the cool lift from KC and the Sunshine Band's hit song - That's the way I like it. Ah huh ah huh. LOL. Love it! You should watch the international English language version (its not dubbed) of Shalimar called "Raiders of the Sacred Stone." It has extra scenes, but is without the songs!?! And its fun to hear all the bollywood actors speaking only in English.:)

Banno said...

Ah! Boston Bliss!

Thankfully have forgotten 'Dance Dance'.

But I do want to watch 'Shalimar' again with the Memsaab sound track on. I loved the film as a kid. The novelty factor.

Anarchivist said...

Yesterday I looked at the sorry selection of candy in the snack machine at work, and thought: where IS that halva man when you need him?

And still jealous about missing the Hunterwali documentary! I really hope that gets released one of these days.

memsaab said...

I am still haunted by Sylvia Miles's hideous rictus of a grin, and her godawful Hindi. Still and all, would watch Shalimar anytime with anyone who wants to! :-) Bahut achcha!

shell said...

My, you've been busy! I really need to get on the Helen train I think - I feel like I'm missing out on something important! I wondered about Dev.D as I wasn't a huge fan of SRK's Devdas, but might have to give it a try now.

Cha cha cha! I would never let a little thing as a heart attack get in the way of my good time dancing fun! Bahut achcha indeed!

Great post!

ajnabi said...

Aack! I so wish I could've been there. :-( Well, next time, right?

Nida said...

Yay for Boston Bollywood Blitz!! I wish I could have been there for Chalti ka Naam Gaadi--it looks adorable! Nonetheless, onto my list of must-sees it goes.

I'm super sad that "Dance Dance" was Smita's last film (At least I'm assuming it was)...

As for "Honeymoon Travels", I think I need to rewatch. Though I liked it, I'm just as disturbed as you are about Amisha's unfinished business. Or, rather, her husband's unfinished business. Though I think I enjoyed watching this movie with you all more than I would have on my own. Our little peppering of comments made it so enjoyable. Especially Filmigeek's, who loves it so.

bollyviewer said...

"Boston Bollywood Blitz" was sooooo much fun! :-) I am so glad I had all of you to watch Dev D with - on my own, the movie would've been turned off in the first 30 min, and that would have been a shame. Re Blackmail, Rakhee did have a lot to do in the movie. Dont tell me you were too blinded by Shatrughan Sinha's bright clothes to notice that! And I am so sad I missed Shalimar - its such a fun romp and I love the songs.

Keith said...

Aww, come on -- Mithun uses breakdance kungfu in Dance Dance and has that green and black sleeveless sweater with matching arm warmers. That has to count for something.

Filmi Geek said...

I'm both embarrassed and pleased by the high Shabana-density of the weekend; that's how you can tell how much of it was spent at my house. *grins* Still it was the perfect kick to shove me back into the world of films, and if it takes three Shabana films in 5 days to do that, so be it. All the other stuff was good fun too. You left out "Bombay to Goa," which I know you'd just seen about a week before, but you can add that to the list as well.