Wednesday, December 22, 2010

mini-reviews: Udaan and Loins of Punjab Presents

Good heavens it's been a quiet few weeks at Beth Loves Bollywood! I have, however, been doing tons of work for the Masala Zindabad podcast (and blog) with Amrita, much of which has not aired yet. As episodes air, I hope also to write here about the films I watched in preparation for them - which means in the next few months there will be pieces on Love Sex aur Dhokha and Ishqiya (finally!), a romp through some early 70s Telugu films, and even something by a certain megastar. The other significant reason for my absence is that my actual job is eating me alive and will probably continue to do so until mid-February.

But! I have managed to see a few things here and there. Udaan was barely on my radar until Cinema Chaat posted about it and I thought "Oh yeah, the one that screened at Cannes"! I should probably duck for cover as I write this, but I found Udaan predictable and corny despite what I think were extremely good intentions and some careful filmmaking. It looks fantastic, the acting is purposeful, and its few lighter notes and small touches very real and sweet. It is on that last point that I think the film shines most - there is something tender and meaningfully normal in moments like lead character Rohan sitting outside with his notebook with industrial gray behind him, the contrast between family dinners at the boys' home compared with the love and homemade-ness of the table at their aunt and uncle's house, or the Superman doll shared between the brothers.

The small gestures of increasingly familiarity and affection between the brothers are the emotional weight of the film to me - such an endearing story of two strangers slowly and genuinely learning about each other, bonding, and, of course, offering protection.


But the overall story felt like something I've seen a million times before (though granted not in Hindi), and this was aggravated by some heavy-handed symbolism, namely the running race that the abusive father insists on having every morning with his initially meek but gradually bolder son. From the moment the father insists they race, I knew exactly how the film would end. The same is true of the huge, clanking machinery at the factory through which the camera looks on poor Rohan's sad face: we already understood that the life his father forces on him oppresses him without having one of its most dangerous aspects appear to smash him.


Some key elements of this film struck me as especially clunky when other parts were so delicately and gently handled. This inconsistency - inelegant writing but beautifully suitable interior scenes, for example - just made my frustrations worse. Uddaan does certainly earn an A for intentions and willingness to even try to portray such a sad and important topic as child abuse, but even that does not mean I call it good overall.

Loins of Punjab Presents, however, is a total success. Here is a film that knows exactly how and and why to go big and obvious - the angry, foul-mouthed, but hilariously insecure wannabe who relies on his best friend for motivation affirmations like "I was born to be the galactic Jedi life force of bhangra!" - and when to keep jokes, commentary, and even delivery quieter - the straight-faced, one-sentence victory of the quietly talented teenager over the fanged machinations of the calculating villain. Every element in this film is either bang-on, evocatively parodic or affectionately "it's funny 'cause it's true." And often both.

The Christopher Guest-esque mockumentary style is a great way to roll out and incorporate the huge list of characters, each one of them familiar, I think, to anyone who is a part of or interacted with (or even watched Indian, US, or British pop culture portrayals of) desi subcultural types. The skewering of talent shows and the classic formula of "let's put a bunch of previously unrelated people in a high-pressure situation and confined space for 48 hours" mean that the film should work even for people not familiar with a variety of stereotypes of Indians abroad and NRI culture.

I'm a sucker for stories about culture clash in the United States, and Loins felt like the comedic response to the Shabana Azmi/Shashi Kapoor*/Art Malik arc of Side Streets. I loved the film's discussions of what it means to be Indian, especially in the context of contemporary America and without delving into the simplistic jingoism that can accompany flag-waving stage shows in films. And for being recognizable types - the statistics nerd, the musician with a delusional sense of his own artistic importance, the embarrassingly conviction-fueled white boy who out-does everyone else's "phir bhi dil hai hindustani" - some of the principal characters have more nuance to them than you might expect. But at the same time none of them do anything truly out of character. My favorite is probably the sleazy event manager who turned out to be far wiser than his track suit and mustache would suggest.

And the acting! Nearly perfect from nearly everyone. Shabana's villain is a particular treat to watch, and I have never seen this great performer be so unrelentingly funny. Darshan Jariwala creates a character a world apart from the version of Gandhi he played that same year, Seema Rahmani's stumbles are full of pathos, and director/writer/star Manish Acharya is sweet and smart as a darling and daring nerd who's a bit out of his element.

There is not a moment of this film I don't love to bits and find emotionally impacting. In the rare seconds I wasn't giggling or downright cackling, I was feeling something for or because of these earnest characters. There are people to root for even though you know their limitations and people to hiss at because you cannot wait for their limitations to catch up with them. Everyone scurries around content in their own ridiculousness, yet somehow some of them find ways to really relate to one another. I could go on and on even more, but lest Editor Self forbid me from the mini-review format again, I'll just end by saying that Loins of Punjab Presents is a wholly engaging film with a big heart and just the right amount of bite and that you should see it right now. I promise to put my copy from Netflix back in the mail ASAP.

Read our friend Filmiholic's interview with much-missed Manish Acharya here.

* How pleased was I that Shashi was evoked in this film? Very!

12 comments:

Banno said...

I ought to duck too, because I felt the very same things you articulated about 'Udaan'. And did enjoy 'Loins of Punjab'.

Here's waiting for more stuff from you, Beth.

Have a fun-filled Xmas.

Temple said...

Hi Beth - I'm not a huge fan of Udaan either. My issue was more with the uneven handling of the story. The gritty horrible abusive side of the plot worked well, but the fluffy "I want to be a writer" fantasy just seems too lightweight and unbelievable. I didn't feel the director offered a credible alternative or true positive choice for the boys, just a fairytale happy ending that may actually have lead to far greater problems for them later on when the luck ran out. I did agree with Heather that the acting was excellent - but I felt let down by the story.

Amaluu said...

Totally agree Beth and you were much more gracious about Udaan than I was. I thought it was terribly slow and pretentious, though I liked the young actor quite a bit and the uncle's character as well, the whole thing just felt repetitive and drawn out and the conclusion felt lacking somehow. I had heard a lot about this film and was extremely disappointed by it. I'm getting annoyed by Anurag Kashyap's "Look at me and how DEEP I am" persona. It's just coming off as fake and arrogant.

karrvakarela said...

Totally agree with you on both Udaan and Loins of Punjab. Was surprised by how funny and tender the latter was.

memsaab said...

Haven't seen Udaan, but I love Loins Of Punjab Presents. Had my mother watch it with me the other evening when we needed some comedy, and she enjoyed it hugely too although she did say that my explanations of Indian stereotypes helped her get some of the humor...but I agree that it is universally hilarious. Brilliant.

red42 said...

Hi Beth,
Well you know I really liked Udaan, and although I agree the symbolism was heavy handed at times it didn't annoy me. My husband also really liked it and that in itself is a small miracle!It's not my usual choice of film so perhaps that was why I enjoyed it more? And likely I do need to be hit over the head with a story to actually get it - I am hopeless I know! It's still my fave Hindi film of the year (so far)
However I do have Loins of Punjab in the pile, and based on your review must move it further up. It sounds excellent! I've really have been neglecting Hindi films and have only seen a handful this year. Must try harder!

bollywoodfoodclub said...

Nice write up Beth, as usual. :) Speaking of Loins of Punjab Presents, here's a nice tribute to the late Manish Acharya http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjW8cgCGZHI&feature=player_embedded
All the best!
Sita-ji

Rathchakra said...

Agree with the heavy-handedness in the imagery of Udaan, but disagree with a comment above on the so-called cop out "happy ending". I did not see as an "end", it was just one path taken by those kids to get away from the abusive father, a whole life full of challenges lay ahead of them as summarized in the lines "kahaani khatam hai, ya shuruwaat hone ke hain.."

Pessimisissimo said...

Beth, we thought Loins was really funny too--so funny that we didn't notice that it was making a statement about the inclusiveness of Indian identity until it was over.

This was the first I'd heard of Manish Acharya's untimely death. I hadn't realized (until your post sent me to Google) that he was also one of the Ramayana narrators in Nina Paley's Sita Sings The Blues. What a sad loss.

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