Sunday, July 14, 2013

mini-reviews of films I wanted to like: Rockstar and Nautanki Saala

Two little posts on two films about artists that didn't work as well as I hoped they would.

Rockstar
Caveat: I dislike Rockstar so much I couldn't even finish it. Therefore I must 1) forfeit much of a right to talk about it beyond these paragraphs and 2) acknowledge that some of my problems with it might have been resolved if I had kept watching. But "keep watching" was not a bargain I was willing to strike with a film with two idiotic protagonists, one of them horrendously acted*, that seems to assure young men that if they pester/stalk a woman long enough she will eventually hear his case case and very quickly find him so charming that she unveils her secret "bad girl" self to him and takes him to a porno, and that suggests that the only way to create art is by experiencing pain, an idea I find highly suspect despite the long fondness of cinema for showing us asshole artists. I don't even remember what was happening when I finally crossed the Jordan, so to speak, to the release of the off button. I know there had been talk of Jordan's presence being medically beneficial to Heer, because at that point I had a memory of people referring to this as the magical healing cock movie.

A moment on "stalking=love": while I watched this film, some people on my twitter timeline had an interesting discussion of whether or not Janardan was stalking Heer or whether his lack of menace slotted his behavior under "unwanted persistence." I come down on the side of "no means no; even if your intent is not malicious, the woman has told you no and you need to respect that." Janardan's continued disregard for Heer's initial feelings about him establish him as a foolish and solipsistic character, which I suppose suits the notion of Great Artist, especially of the black-leather bad-boy variety, but it makes me dislike him and dislike the film for eventually rewarding it with romance, sex, and, in a less direct but still relevant way, the pain required to make him into a famous artist. (To me, Jordan's initial round of suffering seems to be caused by the horrible treatment by his family, which only indirectly results from his choices about Heer, but still, it's hard to imagine him acting in the ways they found so objectionable if he hadn't run off to Kashmir.)

The film does at least look really good, with distinct atmospheres of the three major locations (Delhi, Kashmir, Prague) yet tied together by all the shots of small and/or winding lanes and streets, maybe suggesting a life of constraint and constriction for Heer and of chaos for Jordan? As ever, Ranbir Kapoor impresses me, as does the supporting cast. And what a treat to see Shammi! The music is infinitely more soulful and substantial than anything in Rock On (which I also should have abandoned)—yes, they're different kinds of rock stars, but for all the face-pulling and temperaments in Rock On, Rockstar's music has tons more content, musically and lyrically. But the story is just so relentlessly stupid—as in, the people in it seem to have put very little thought into what they say and do—puzzling, and at moments ethically off-putting that I had to stop.

Nautanki Saala
I know nobody had much good to say about this, but it just looks so interesting, and the soundtrack is at times so charmingly different, that I couldn't resist finding out if the film was the same. Nautanki Saala does indeed feel very different than most Bollywood comedies, partly because even though it is contextualized in attempted suicide and the world of theater (with the subtitles saying "drama queen" repeatedly) and involves lots of silly shenanigans, it is also somehow much more low key (not a slide whistle to be heard, thank Helen). I don't know enough about French cinema to say it feels French (whether or not such a vibe would come automatically from its source material)—though some of the music has that feel, no?—and given that Rohan Sippy so enjoyably evoked the Argentinian Nine Queens in Bluffmaster, a foreign feel would have just been an attraction to me. The film's hero (an assured Ayushmann Khurrana) isn't very heroic, so much so that he chooses to play Ravana in his professional life and, if you think about it, becomes a worse person throughout the course of the film than he was at its beginning, with an ending that has a very un-filmi piece at its heart. Its sexual ethics are modern and laissez-faire, with cheating, kissing**, very short skirts, and a couple living together without being married all functioning as mere plot points rather than moral commentary.

The most significant problem I can nail with certainty is the underwritten female characters, one of whom is particularly important to the plot and the principal emotional arc of the film but is just too faint of a presence for her centrality to make sense. Debut actor Pooja Salva is probably not the best possible person to portray her, either; I think she aims for a sort of a wide-eyed Marilyn Monroe-y comic lightness but she comes off as a dandelion puff just about to float out of the movie. Gaelyn Mendonca as the hero's live-in girlfriend is okay, but her role seems to be missing something too. Her arc should matter a lot more than it does, as though the film neither downplays it enough to be merely a comic aside or collateral damage to the changing hero nor gives it enough heft to provide the emotion that its actual unfolding suggests it should have. I also wonder if Evelyn Sharma (infinitely less annoying here than as Lara in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani)'s role may have gotten mangled, because it seems that certain developments are hinted at for her but never actually materialize. Basically, the women are around too much to have as little actual presence as they do.

I don't hate it, but Nautanki Saala is more different than it is special, despite its charms. The ethical decline of the hero doesn't help, and I think too much energy is put on depicting that when something more compelling could have been written for the suicidal man (amusingly grumpy and dim Kunaal Roy Kapur) whom he befriends and tries to help. The glimpses of that character that we are given in the last third or so of the film are more satisfying and interesting to me than anything the hero chooses to do. Maybe because of its...not geographical groundlessness, exactly, but the sense that it could be set many places and has little other than surface features that feel specifically Indian (or Bollywood-y), there is a dreaminess to it, or maybe even a fable-like quality. It never feels fully real (which is not the same thing as realistic), a sense that is encouraged every time the characters are shown at work in the Ramayana with an audience watching and responding to them. It's detached. And for some of the comedy, that's a good thing, enabling a lightness that I find desperately needed in some of the things Bollywood tells me to laugh at. But when it comes to character development, pacing, and encouraging our investment as viewers, some more discipline would have made this a much more satisfying film.

* Surely there are literally at least a million young women in India who are as pretty as Nargis Fakhri and could have done the role better than she did. HOW DID SHE GET THIS PART?

** Did anyone else think this was a really good kiss (you can find it on youtube if you need to research)? Was I just so let down by the much ado about utterly nothing in Jab Tak Hai Jaan that I have set my bar too low?

Friday, July 12, 2013

in honor of Pran

I recently wrote about Pran's career when he was given the Phalke award, and with great sadness it is timely today at his death. My article "Pran, the Actor" appears on page 14 of the debut issue of The Indian Trumpet, available online here or as a pdf here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I hardly knew you, but oh how I loved you: Music World on Park Street

I am oddly saddened by the news of the closure of Music World—a chain store, and I don't tend to choose to patronize chain stores—in Park Street in Calcutta—a city I have spent all of ten days in and have no urgent plans to revisit. Here's why:
That's right: "Magic Moments of Soumitra."
It's not as simple as noting gratefully that Music World sent me home with 18 Bengali film DVDs, most of which I am certain I would not be able to find at the DVD shops on Chicago's Devon Avenue. (As for shopping online: granted the price of airfare to India ups the per unit cost of each of these DVDs, but if you assume I was going to be in India anyway, they're radically cheaper than buying online, where Bengali DVDs seem to go for around $15 as opposed to Hindi films that average around $7. I got this stack for about $85.)

It's also not as simple as remembering how much fun Amrita I had in there, both of fairly new to Bengali movies and genuinely freaking out with delight at how many options the store had, squeeing, bouncing up and down, constantly grabbing each other's arm to say "OMG LOOK! They have _____!" Or stifling giggles as the shop staff told us we should try Charulata—seriously, dudes, if we beelined for the old Bengali DVDs, don't you think we know about Charulata already? And then being thrilled that they could understand our attempts at the language when we asked for titles we'd never heard pronounced.

What was special to me about Music World was that it was three-dimensional, orderly, neon proof that there exists a physical and metaphorical space for Bengali cinema and that we could be a part of it. Its brick-and-mortar presence is one facet of this, but more importantly the store is evidence and support of a community of people who come to this place and do exactly what we were doing (if perhaps more quietly). The location of a cultural activity, if you will. Probably any DVD shop in Calcutta would have provided it, but Music World is the only one we found that was open.

It is also the only store selling Indian DVDs that I have ever been to—Chicago's Devon Avenue, London's Southall, and all over India—that used any women as organizing principles. I've griped before about how sigh-of-resignation I find it that movie stores seem to be organized around only men, and that too mostly around heroes rather than directors. Like the Filmfare cover that marks 100 years of Hindi cinema with three (and only three) heroes (and only heroes), the organizational and access scheme for DVDs is one of those things that flows painfully logically from the extreme hero-centeredness of the culture of popular Indian cinema. But not, at least, in this little corner of Calcutta. Suchitra Sen had her own section; if memory serves it was next to and overlapped with Uttam Kumar but was not subsumed under him. Imagine! Aparna Sen's works too had their own section, a clear statement of value for a woman's creative output. And of course the existence of that section derives from there being such a successful and well-regarded female director in the first place. Noticing these small-yet-huge features was like watching Julie and Julia (or the under-appreciated Naach): on the surface it may seem that a film about women having projects is not unusual, but I am very hard-pressed to name you any others that focus on women defining their own creative work only in terms of their own satisfaction and not to earn money, support children, demonstrate values to a community, etc. I've never seen another shop that so directly supports the idea that we viewers of Indian cinema can conceive of a film as having to do more with a female presence than a male.

And it doesn't hurt that they gave me so much Sonpapdi I went home with a tummyache. Thank you, Music World, for feeding us so well.