Sunday, December 23, 2012

mini-review marathon: the new-ish Hindi films

It's one of those spells of spending more time seeing films than thinking and writing about them. To address the imbalance, there will be a series of short reviews on the last dozen or so things I've seen that didn't get written about elsewhere, grouped into the user-friendly, subjective, and highly unscientific  categories of new-ish Hindi films, prime vintage Hindi films (that's late 60s through early 80s, if you're new around here), and old-ish Bengali films (Soumitra and Uttam at or near their peaks).

Today's features: Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, Talaash, Barfi!, Cocktail, and Aiyyaa.
The last of these is not, in fact, "mini."

Ladies vs Ricky Bahl
I enjoyed this while watching it, but a month later I hardly remember it. For a movie with multiple major female characters and a hero who doesn't get as much screen time as heroes generally do, I maybe unfairly wanted more GIRL POWER! from this movie. Filmi Geek discusses the niggling "Oh but wait, it mostly hinges on the man after all" problem that I didn't really notice while the film was in front of me. I do really appreciate that Anushka Sharma's heroine's superpower, so to speak, is selling (or conning, or convincing, whatever you want to call it), which is such both a timeless human tendency and a pleasingly modern, practical, and brain-dependent ability for a female romantic lead to have.

And speaking of unconventional female leads, Parineeti Chopra's portrayal of an unglamorous, kind of cringe-inducing loser in love is noteworthy, as is the fact that a major character like her is written, and with depth, into a mainstream Hindi film—and she even survives the film without a makeover and the approval of a conventionally handsome man.
Actually, now that I think about it, the other two lead woman are also a little unusual, one lonely and reserved, the other ambitious and willing to gamble millions on a project intended to advance her career. Yes, they are women who get tricked, but they're also women who have desires that make them vulnerable and thus exposed enough to be tricked, and I'm so happy to see that instead of women who are passive in their own heads or in how they interact with the world. 

Talaash 
Talaash is a much stronger film before its twist is revealed. My problems with the twist are the realities that the plot wants me to accept. On paper they strike me as kind of silly and, much more frustratingly, a cop-out, writing-wise; additionally, the melodrama that accompanies them is escapism of the highest order and jars with the rest of the film. Yes yes, melodrama and escapism in a Hindi film are quite the done thing, but in this case they do not at all suit the careful, detail-rich world that the film has so beautifully and poignantly created up to that point. The twist particularly irritates me in relation to Aamir Khan's character, whose arc has been driven by investigation and fact-finding. I can accept that the filmmakers may be wanting to contrast "the real world," embodied by detection, with emotional realities, especially those spiraling outward and inward from tragedy, but...well come on. One can set up contrats while still staying on the same planet. And what happens by the end of the film, to me, just undercuts the characters' suffering and very hard work. 

Let me put it this way: the audience here ("micro-urban" college town, midwestern US) laughed our heads off when the twist came. Surely that's not the reaction Reema Kagti had in mind. 

But otherwise, I love Talaash. The performances are outstanding across the board, as is all the direction given in creating the supporting words, appearances, and behaviors. I desperately hope that this will remind people to cast Rani Mukherji in pretty much anything. I remember reading quite a few reviews of No One Killed Jessica that were not in favor of her attempt there at dogged and upset; I liked her in that perfectly well and feel that Talaash proves that she can embody characters full of maturity, sadness, and determination. (Now if only there were more such characters to perform.) And Kareena! Child, bless you. When you are rising to the challenge of a substantial and interestingly written character with a director who clearly wants your best, you are such a treat. And the look of this film is so impressive. I certainly do not want to live in this world full of grimy secrets and horrible people, but it is a joy to see. The music too works so well. Everything works so well except for the peculiar and unfortunate way that the expressive carefulness of the first two thirds is undone. 

Barfi!
It might be because I have recently re-watched Black, or maybe it's just impish Ranbir hangover from Saawariya all those years ago, but Barfi! somehow reminds me of what I wish Sanjay Leela Bhansali would do. It has much of his delight in visuals—perhaps not as flat-out beautiful but certainly as detailed, colorful, and magical—and none of the self-indulgent nonsense that has made me run screaming from his last few films. Barfi! maybe a fleeting pleasure that melts away as you enjoy it, as a friend on twitter said, but it's perfectly clear that a lot of thought and effort went into creating it. 

Regular readers know I am no fan of Priyanka Chopra, but both she and director Anurag Basu deserve credit for making me forget whom I was watching. I'm beginning to think it's no coincidence that the films in which I genuinely like her performances (7 Khoon Maaf, What's Your Rashee) involve significant modification of her physical appearance away from blandly pageant-queen pretty (hair, face, clothes, mannerisms), as though maybe she needs those more blatant cues to prompt her into acting. Ranbir Kapoor can do no wrong on screen in my book, and as an actor I think he has left all of his peers in the dust. 
Significantly, he has also long passed them in his courage in choice of roles (and I assume he is offered projects that other people are not), and it is no small part of why he has been able to prove his acting talents in ways that, say, Imran Khan has not quite yet achieved. Some of what he has to work with in Barfi! may be derivative, but he still makes the material as charming as can be. I tend to have a short fuse about copycatting in Hindi films, but for some reason here I just thought "Well, what's the difference between him aping Charlie Chaplin and him aping decades of Hindi film heroes before him?" and decided to put that aside (though only regarding performances—the scrapbook approach of parts of the script still troubles me). And how fun to see Haradhan Bannerjee in his grandfatherly protector role here after things like Kapurush and Shakha Proshakha!

Another thing to like about Barfi! is its truly delightful use of manic pixie dream____s, who are much more tolerable when they are matched with each other (especially in a historical and sort of fairy-tale-like setting) than when they monstrously devour "normal" people in their very special paths of glitter-caked wisdom-imparting destruction. Not that either Barfi or Jhilmil do that, which is another strength of the film: the script just lets them be people even though they're different from almost everyone else. It is a sweet and believable love story, and while I am disappointed for the other leg of that love triangle (the slightly reserved Shruti, in a sad-eyed performance by Ileana that suits the role), I think her mother's advice that Barfi could never have given her what she needed is correct (if depressing). Shruti never gets what she really needed in her love life, and it's hard to know if being with Barfi would have been more distressing than how she ended up. 

Honestly, I don't know what to make of this film. Like Talaash, everything in it came together for me quite beautifully and effectively (music, costumes, sets, locations, performances), yet I'm not sure what is left after viewing. And maybe that's a perfectly fine outcome for a film that is a treat to consume? 

Cocktail
Oh my god what a train wreck. I wanted to like this, I really did, partly out of love of Saif Ali Khan and partly out of trust in Dolce and Namak's awesome piece on why the story is not the regressive virgin/whore dichotomy that many people seem to think. After viewing, I say with confidence that my faith in one of those was well placed. I would watch Saif in anything but he just cannot make that character work. However, that character is an asshole and really should have been the one hit with the car, preferably leading to a blank slate of amnesia if not actual death, so I'm not sure what other actor could have done anything better with him. As to the other draw, I agree 100% with everything Dolce says. 
The important and substantial relationship in the story is between the women, and if you think about who they are as people, and how they do and do not change in the film, the attacks on the story as regressive for "rewarding the good girl" don't hold up very well. And you know me—I looooove to call representations of women in Hindi films regressive, but I just don't think that's terribly fair or relevant in this case. I personally would have MUCH preferred that their story was told in some other way that had much less, or even nothing, to do with Saif's character. But this is Bollywood, so there has to be a big-name man for anyone to give a fig about it? I would also prefer that "slut" and "virgin" could be retired as the necessary connection and lazy shorthand, in both creating and interpreting characters, for "messed-up, messy, unpredictable, and brash" and "healthy, stable, and scared," but no one consults me about these matters. 

However, I also appreciate some of the discussion that thinks the film is problematic in its depiction of female types, and Shoma Chaudhury's piece in Tehelka is especially good. I am interested in any argument that emphasizes the influence of films in culture and behavior and that cinema does not exist in or communicate to a vacuum.

I asked on twitter if anyone could pinpoint what exactly went wrong in this film, and among the responses saying, basically, "How long do you have?" I was also sent Rituparna Chatterjee's list of proposed and much-improved alternate endings for Cocktail, which are all very amusing indeed, especially #6. Heehee.

Aiyyaa
In the coming weeks, you will hear from me in multiple places about my year-end lists, so I'll try to keep the raving brief here. This is very likely going to be my favorite film of 2012 unless the DVD of Shanghai somehow dethrones it in the next few days. To me this film is basically perfect, from concept to story to execution at all levels. It is clever, thoughtful, funny, and entertaining, and it makes several very interesting points, many of which are important and seldom seen elsewhere. I'm even tempted to call it revolutionary. Not only is this a relatively mainstream Hindi film that is told from a woman's point of view, it is centered in her desires—and not just the romantic and sexual ones, either, though they are the easiest to discern visually. 
As in Kahaani, Aiyyaa gives us not a heroine but a female hero who loves boldly, strikes out on her own, adds her own image into a giant collage of movie-star cut-outs that is the canvas of her dreams, and, in sort of an conceptual collision with the idea of "item girl," shakes her moneymakers for her own pleasure and her own imagined gaze. This is a story of a woman breathing, finding the open spaces she has identified as critical to her self-defined existence. This is a story of a woman who realizes it is a very sadly unique thing for a man to ask her her opinions or interests, but she also realizes that those questions alone are not enough for a partnership. 

Although I have no idea if this was part of the point of the film (but surely it is), it is a perfect IN YOUR FACE to conservative players in the film industry who cede all drive and all power to men. Female desire and female control are pushed to their logical, if ridiculous, extremes, as seen in Meenakshi's friend Mynah's obsession with John Abraham (thanks again to creative paper cut-outs, her doorbell is just millimeters away from his ding-dong) and her sudden pouncing on Meenakshi's brother. This is exactly what odious comic side plot uncles have been doing for decades, and yet it totally works for her, giving her the happy ending she clearly knows she deserves. And her happy ending is with the kindest person in the film, the young man who devotes his life to taking care of the creatures who are the millennia-old symbol of companionship, trust, and love. 

Aiyyaa is also the perfect complement to Talaash in testament to Rani Mukherji's capabilities as an actor. Between those two films, she's proven herself in expressing and eliciting a range of basic human emotions of grief, joy, love, resoluteness, etc. And as in Barfi!, the absolutely stunning visuals (watch for Meenakshi's yellows and Surya's rich blues—and where and when they appear together) and sound of this film nudge it towards a fairy-tale world where amazing things, like a woman pursuing a man before he has sanctioned her interest with his own, can happen. Among other tropes Aiyyaa merrily flips over as it skips along include parents knowing best, brothers protecting sisters, dark skin and cultural differences being unattractive, and wealth or "stable" careers like engineering and business as necessary for approval or adulthood. It does something slightly different with "stalking=love," letting the object of the attention choose when to get involved and thus retain some power. The male lead is quiet and mysterious throughout most of the film not because he is negligible (far from it) or because the writers are too lazy to create a personality for him but because the story is actually about Meenakshi. IMAGINE THAT.

Two more points before I keel over. First, I love how in "Wakda" Surya just stares at Meenakshi as she loons on in her typical way, and then he breaks out into a huge laugh and gestures to her as though to say "Look at my fiancee! Isn't she awesome? Isn't she hilarious? I LOVE THIS WOMAN." That is the love of understanding someone, not just of lust or convenience or pleasantries. Second, even though Alice in Wonderland is the novel the film namechecks, I could not stop thinking about Pride and Prejudice. The fact that the movie is from the point of view of a woman is a nice Austen-like feature, to be sure, but there is also: a central young woman who does not take kindly to attempts to restrain her values; the gentle pressure of marriage, embodied by a loose-cannon mother who is left mostly unchecked by a quieter father;  and a Darcy-like hero who is tall, handsome, taciturn, and seems to take little notice of our girl but who has secretly begun appreciating her spirit. 

Phew. I have so much more to say about Aiyyaa, but I'm breathless and should save raving about it for the other imminent projects. ShanghaiEnglish Vinglish, and Gangs of Wasseypur are waiting. What an interesting year this has been! 

12 comments:

Abhishek Mukherjee said...

I'm really intrigued by your Aiyaa review: the trailers had put me off so much that I had decided against watching it.

But I guess I will have to watch it based on your recommendation.

Stuart Martin said...

I really enjoyed your review of Aiyyaa, and look forward to reading more of your raving about it. The first 30 minutes or so I thought it was going to be nearly perfect. If it hadn't persisted with the tired old "ugly people are funny" bit, it might have been.

Sharon said...

From my brain to your keyboard! :)

BTW I was spoiled for the twist in Talaash, and i can tell you, it's hella obvious. My brother called it halfway through.

Sarah said...

I also loved Aiyyaa, and I'm glad to see such a positive review of it. It was really refreshing to see a movie where the woman takes the lead!

estetik said...

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Estetik

Sarah said...

I've been thinking about Aiyyaa. I can totally see where some of the criticism is coming from - the comic-sidekick scenes are shrill bordering on unbearable. But that's nothing new in Bollywood. The reaction to the film makes me think of Paheli - another bomb which I loved - and wonder if the failure of both films can be chalked up to a fundamental discomfort with female sexual liberation.

I haven't seen Kahaani yet, so I don't know how that compares. But the other woman-centric films I've seen lately (Heroine, Dirty Picture) are much more typical 'wages of sin are death' sort of morality plays.

(I was impressed with the female characters in Jab Tak Hai Jaan, despite Katrina Kaif's emotive resemblance to a pancake, but you haven't gotten a review of that up yet, so I'll wait)

Beth Watkins said...

Aaaaah sorry for late replies! I thought I had commented here ages ago, but clearly I was wrong!

Abhishek - Did you watch it did you watch it? :D

Stuart - That's a fair critique, though I am convinced that in this particular case they did it to show how ridiculous it is as a lazy writing prop. That is, I think it's yet another thing they're skewering.

Sharon - Despite watching lots of British mysteries, I'm not very good at predicting twists. I'd like to watch Talaash again in a little while and see if I find the twist 1) less irritating and 2) more successful or significant as a metaphor. (As you can see, I'd like to think the writers were doing something so silly FOR A GOOD REASON. :) )

Sarah - TOTALLY AGREE. I think the things that may be irritating to some people in Aiyyaa are stereotypes, tropes, etc that have existed in Hindi cinema for decades and seem glaring in Aiyyaa because they're given to different types of characters than usual (or even _ever_, for all I know). I also think that's all done in service of a point beyond cheap laughs, which is way more than I can say for most films (and it also helps that I agree with the points the film is trying to make and think they're important things to be said).

Aiyyaa and Kahaani are great examples of how "women-centric" CAN mean feminist; Heroine and Dirtiy Picture are examples of how that term doesn't guarantee a story or its depiction are pro-women at all. (I don't think Heroine or DP are utterly un- or anti-feminist; that's just not a word I would ascribe to them overall.)

manythoughts said...

Hi Beth,

I came to your blog after many months today and am glad to see it's going stronger than ever :)

I super-totally agree with your review of Talaash. Would you believe, the first thing I said after watching it was that the ending was such a cop-out. I was so disappointed, also because Aamir Khan does such few movies and I eagerly look forward to each one. The last one-third seemed to be from another movie, given the carefully constructed aura of mystery and rational fact-finding in the earlier two-thirds. I wish, wish, wish the writers hadn't taken the easy way out on this one!

Beth Watkins said...

maynythoughts - Nice to see you! I wonder if I would be less disappointed in Talaash if I watched it again, away from the excitement of its release, etc. It really did seem so pathetic after so much careful work.

Muhammad Usman said...

Your work is up to the marks. I got much masti tips from your reviews on rani's film.can you also post a review on indian movie Ramaiya Vastavaiya

Mutanu L said...

Do you know the meaning of the Tamil sentence Prithviraj teaches Rani's character at 2:17:58 in the movie? It's driving me nuts trying to figure out. I did like Aiyyaa (despite a few things I felt were unnecessary/overboard), and I also love Paheli.

Beth Watkins said...

Mutanu - Next time I put in the DVD, I'll try to see if that part is subtitled. Otherwise, I'd have no clue! :)