Sunday, November 22, 2009

Kurbaan

Without being spoilery, here are the good things I can say about Kurbaan.

  • The acting ranges from solid to quite strong, with Om Puri and Kiron Kher perhaps tailing the pack only because their characters are extreme and tempt the actors into scenery-nibbling. I was especially impressed by Vivek Oberoi.* Even the American extras and bit players are pretty good, relatively. (Note: it seems like a wasted opportunity for some fun cameos, though. How fun would it have been if they had roped in someone Harrison Ford-ish to be the lead FBI agent - he could've done his belabored everyman bit in a totally new context!)
  • Some of the characters are more nuanced than I expected.
  • Cutey-cute love among the bookshelves and Delhi landmarks.
  • Some blood and guts were at a level of gory that surprised me but felt in the right tone of danger and consequence of the subject matter.
  • The pace is quick without being rushed.
  • It successfully manipulated me emotionally throughout its climax as I wondered which of the terrorists' targets would go according to their plans.
  • There is an unspoken contrast of behavior driven by conviction (religious, political, emotional) and behavior resulting from not knowing what to believe or think, between knowing one is right and not being able to grasp the world you find yourself in. In some ways, I wish the movie had made more of this, but leaving at least one important idea to permeate quietly was also very effective.
  • Kareena Kapoor (Avantika)'s wardrobe and makeup staff did a bang-up job. She looks gorgeous throughout, whether in her "Indian" clothes in Delhi (intensely colored skirts and shirts with intricate earrings and pretty scarves) or in the more western-urban trench coats and boots in New York. (These two styles are cleverly bridged by using similar shirts - with full skirts in India and jeans in the US.) As the tension in her life builds, her makekup helps tire her face, and as it disappears (or becomes more natural-looking, at any rate), it accentuates how stripped-down her existence is becoming - no extras, no fun, no beauty. Saif Ali Khan (Ehsaan) also looked very natty in his suits and jackets, especially a gray one with off-center buttons. (Can you tell I just finished the Project Runway finale?)
  • Likewise, the set design is great. A lot of time is spent in Avantika and Ehsaan's suburban New York home and neighborhood, and it looks exactly like many homes built in the last 10 years across the US, even in my little city. This was an effective way to communicate "evil lurks in the most normal of places"-style fear.
There was much in Kurbaan that made me uncertain and uncomfortable; maybe that was (part of) its point. For starters, I think this is the only Indian film I've seen in which no major characters are definitively identified as...Indian, either biographically or culturally. I suppose Avantika is probably Indian, though if the film said where she grew up, I didn't catch it. Everyone else's back story is to Pakistan or Afghanistan or left unstated, and several times we hear characters being described as "...male of Indian or Pakistani descent." Hmmm. What's that about? Terrorism as a post-national crisis? Good and evil are harder to pin down than labels like that? (On second thought, probably not that second idea - US military action is repeatedly labeled by the terrorists as the inspiration for their action, and Americans are repeatedly labeled as their intended victims.) Perhaps related, Avantika, who is the center of the story in some ways but actually does very little knowingly or deliberately, is the only major character who is not Muslim (and is in fact identified as Hindu), and I'm wondering if the story is trying to say something disturbing (and maybe even inflammatory) about non-Indian Muslims' attitudes about Indian Hindus, namely that Indian Hindus are being taken advantage of to very dire consequences. (Sorry to be vague - I'm trying not to give away too much about what happens to the characters.) At least we learn that Muslim-Hindu cooperation (aided by not terribly efficient white and black American law enforcement officials of unknown faiths) is a good thing and can save lives. Hurrah!

For all of its realistic touches, Kurbaan still gives us multiple characters who are supposed to be smart and good with words - we know this because they're professors and journalists - who refuse to call the police or FBI at sensible times. And when they do, they don't get to the point and share the really important life-saving information, even though they have time to do so, or identify themselves as a reliable source, even though they have already met the FBI agent and he has asked them to call him if they find information, and instead leave cryptic anonymous messages about meeting up in a church. Wha? Do not try to take out a terrorist cell on your own. Ask for help from the friendly FBI guy who gave you his business card. It won't make you any less of a man, I promise.

Generally, a film that offers unexpectedly complex characters is
a good thing in my book, and I am grateful to writers who are willing to try making people more than caricatures, especially in a complicated story full of inner conflict in the face of fear and sadness. However, in this film, multiple facets didn't always cohere into a person that made much emotional or logical sense. "Is that really what s/he would do?" I kept wondering. The character that the FBI calls one of the most lethal terrorists in the world seemed to change his mind a lot, pulled to extreme action by his hatred of what American troops did to his family in Pakistan, then lurching as far back the other direction when someone accuses him of using jihad as a cover for his psychological pleasure in killing. I like the idea that even a terrorist who seems ready to kill hundreds of people might be able to change his mind when given new information or a different way of looking at his life, but in this case, it just felt jumbled. Is he conflicted, is he lying to get the upper hand, or is the writing disintegrating? I'm not sure.

[The next paragraph has spoilers. Sorry!]

The film's tag line - "Some love stories have blood on them" emblazoned over shirtless Saif and Kareena - implies that they have a romance, which I think is completely misleading. Ehsaan is a sociopath using Avantika for very evil purposes; he claims some sort of affection for her, but I don't buy it. He's too warped. Most of the actual connection he claims and seems to engage in is about their pregnancy, not about her. She's just a vehicle - first for entry into the country, then for a weird attempt to re-do the horrors of his past via their baby. I think she may have a romance with/towards him, though the film does not explain why or how she is unable or unwilling to disengage from him. (Idea: if she is in fact Indian, is she representing filmi-fied India as a great loving mother who accepts one and all and is always forgiving, always accepting, always compassionate?) I was surprised that she backs down from confrontation and retribution that a filmier film might indulge. The sensible, pacifist, real-life-centered part of me is glad, but my more emotional side was disappointed. "Take a page from Fanaa and kill the bastard!" I wrote in my notes (though Avantika is never sketeched as anything close to
Kajol's "Desh Rangeela"-spouting character, so maybe she doesn't feel inspired to act decisively for the nation/world) - and I am not prone to recommending Fanaa-isms as a way to improve matters. (Though Tabu shooting bad guys from a helicopter should be in every film.)

Now for a laugh to get rid of that murky, depressed, vaguely dissatisfied taste: go right now and read this highly spoilery but hit-the-nail-on-the-head comic of Kurbaan at The Vigil Idiot. Go!

* I haven't seen any of Vivek's heavy-hitting films except Omkara, which I loved. What should I start with?

12 comments:

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

I really need to see this. Your review is super, and I couldnt agree more with, ""Take a page from Fanaa and kill the bastard!" ....(Though Tabu shooting bad guys from a helicopter should be in every film)"

Truer words, etc :)

veracious said...

I LOL'ed at the Fanaa-referencing line when you tweeted it. Gotta love Fanaa in all its cheesy melodrama.

I suppose a certain Saif fangirl loyalty makes sure I have to watch this at some point and your review made me a little more interested than the promos did. Thanks!

celluloidrant said...

I'm beginning to get the feeling that I might be among the few who ended up feeling positive about this movie on the whole. I agree with most of the flaws you point out, but for some reason, it worked for me emotionally. As for the plot, you could drive a Buick 8 through any of its loopholes.

On Avantika's reaction, I got the sense that she was never sure of his feelings for her, even after it was all done. And she probably never will be. I think the easier route would've been for her to just Fanaa the s.o.b. (it's officially a verb now) but I don't think it would've rung true.

As it stands, I think the problem is that Saif's character is underwritten to the point where oone doesn't get a sense of how he evolved during the movie, and why he made the choices he did towards the end. This seems to have been a conscious strategy -- the ambiguity about his feelings is played up throughout the movie. And I'm not sure I agree with it.

Filmi Girl said...

I kept hoping that Bebo would take a clue and just watch Ek Haseena Thi and go all Urmila on Saifu's ass! XD

I just posted my review and I think we actually shared a lot of the same criticisms with it.

Beth said...

Shweta - Thanks! I wouldn't really steer anyone away from this, but I'm certainly not sure what to make of it. I'm still thinking about it 24 hours later, so that at least is a good sign, right? :)

veracious - Yay! I really, really wanted her to harm/kill him, and then I felt guilty about that, because of how I feel about the violence in Chak De and because TECHNICALLY, in real life, I think that's wrong etc etc etc, but DAMN GIRL. DON'T GO ALONG WITH THE TERRORISTS! I liked Saif's performance more than Filmi Girl did, though I agree that his character is confused and confusing. I also think there are un- or underdeveloped threads about people's inner conflicts and inconsistencies that are mature and important ideas, and I'm enjoying thinking about those more as I continue to reconsider the film.

celluloidrant - I will admit that I did actually cry a little bit in this film, mostly towards the end as the big day dawned and I wasn't sure who was going to do what (and whether they were doing it deliberately).

I agree about Avantika and that her actions and responses felt consistent with her character - she was in a really horrendous position even just emotionally (let alone psychologically, safety-wise, etc), and I think that more than explains why she wouldn't do something more "heroic" - aka Fanaa the bastard :) I'm pretty sure I could never bring myself to do that, even if I felt betrayed on every possible level.

And now I'm wondering what to make of the fact that she was a psychology teacher yet misread Ehsaan so severely...is that an extra insult to her? Or a sign that he's super sneaky?

I also agree re: Saif. I want to know more about him - in his own words, too, not in Kiron Kher's. The trouble with ambiguity in films is that I have enough of it in real life and with real people - I generally want the emotional satisfaction of things getting sorted out and becoming clear.

FG - I still haven't seen that even though I've had the DVD for years. Soon!

SpyGirl said...

You said "among the bookshelves" -- is there a library scene?

memsaab said...

Vivek is unbelievable in Company, which is a really good film although it's been done to death now (hadn't been back when it was made). I also liked Kisna a lot, but many people did not...and my Vivek guilty pleasure is the film he made with Aishwarya (Kyon? Ho Gaya Na)...Oh, and I liked Saathiya too, with Rani. Would do a watchalong of any of those with you except Company which I don't have...

(ps yay I can comment again! :-)

a ppcc representative said...

Ackk! Before I read the review, gotta say that this was an intermission walk-out for me. Must agree that Vivek was surprisingly good. He looks like a fleshed out K.K. Menon sometimes, heh.

Beth said...

Spygirl - it's a staff lounge with lots of library-looking shelves - at least one shelf is labeled with a subject, and all of the books seem to have white tape on their spines, though I never noticed any shot close enough to see if there were in fact call numbers on the tape. But I declare it sufficiently library-y for us to rejoice!

memsaab - Company it is, then! I have seen Saathiya but don't care to see it again (ditto Masti). Maybe I'll pop Yuva in again in the meantime.

PPCC - I can totally appreciate why you'd walk out. I get to see fillums in the theater so seldom that I'll sit through anything (hence having seen all of No Entry).

Amrita said...

Well if Avantika's decision to hop in with Ehsaan after she found out that he'd just scammed her in the most terrible way is a reflection of Mother India welcoming her children, then Mother India is that annoying mother on the subway who smiles at her brat as he kicks fellow passengers and litters all over the car. Allow ME to slap some manners into your infant demon, miss!

Yeah this could have been so much better as a movie. Like I wrote in my review, I personally felt that they couldn't make up their mind about what kind of a movie this was going to be and thus failed all over the place. Pity.

PS - Company is Vivek's best film by far even today.

Shalini Razdan said...

I haven't seen Kurbaan and am not likely to (heck, I still haven't seen Fanaa), but I think it's hard to hit the right note on a film dealing with terrorism. A terrorism cum romance/masala movie, with it's necessary commercial compromises is particularly vulnerable to pleasing no one.

I generally can't summon the emotional distance to watch terrorism themed movies, but I remember being quite impressed and moved by the Palestinian film, Paradise Now.

sunshin3girl said...

OMG, Beth! You are so awesome. :)

I grew up with Bollywood and love it and its bad films et al to bits. Your blog is a joy to read. Um...Vivek Obroi has not done many good films, but you can start with "Company."