Monday, September 30, 2013

Anupama Chopra's 100 Films to See before You Die

[Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author.]

Doesn't it seem like we all grumble about lists but then we write them anyway? I know I do. Anupama Chopra takes one of the few reasonable approaches to such a project as 100 films from what seems to be the whole world of feature films, stating that this book is is meant to be food for thought for the reader from among movies the author loves, with different titles grabbing the reader based on their mood, what films they've already seen, or what films they might be ready to learn about and try. There's the feeling of "something for everyone" in here, ranging from Kabhi Kabhie to Spinal Tap, which makes me think that  Chopra, like Roger Ebert, tends to take films on their own terms.

This leads to a likable individuality in the completed work, evident not just in what is said about each particular film but in the work overall. The effect is a bit like Chopra narrating her DVD shelves at home, which I find much more engaging than an approach that does not admit or fully own its subjectivity. Chopra never obscures her knowledge or authority, but she never flaunts them either. As in her other books, she cuts an important middle path between the two general extremes of published books on Indian cinema, the gossipy or merely descriptive disposable garbage on one end (which I hate) and the out-of-filmi-character drab and sometimes impenetrable academic on the other (which, if I must pick a flaw in my reading, I much prefer).

Readers of this blog will probably want to know that 100 Films to See before You Die is not entirely about Indian cinema. About a quarter of the films in the list are Indian, and most of those Hindi, with a very healthy love of Amitabh Bachchan and Salim-Javed. Chopra flat-out states a big love for Hindi cinema in the introduction and talks about a few films that she sees as key to understanding it. I wonder if this statement might also help contextualize her non-Indian choices. For anyone who has broader viewing habits than I do, wondering about the relationship or trails of inspiration they have with Hindi cinema could be a fun way to approach the book. I would gobble up The Hindi Film Lover's Guide to World Cinema, that's for sure (though I'd want more than one person to contribute to it).

Apart from the individual choices of this particular author, the book's other significant strength is the brevity of each entry, which also manages to contain some diversity of information. Each item is at most two pages long; in addition to some summary of the plot, there may be commentary on performances, writing, direction, etc., some history of the film's production, and a sentence or two specifying Chopra's reasons for including it in the list. Each entry also has a brief list of cast, run time, country of origin, language, etc.; its awards (surely incomplete in some instances); a statement about some aspect of the film by someone from the film industry, though not always someone involved with the film in question; and a piece of trivia. The quotes by film professionals are my favorite part because they add some variety to Chopra's (very reasonably) consistent voice throughout. I don't know if Chopra herself picked out these quotes, but whoever did had an eye for sources who have something intelligent to say (critics, journalists, actor-directors). The quotes are usually attributed with sources, so you have a built-in starting point to read more if you want to.

One of the risks of a very limited word count is oversimplification. Some passages contain some uneasy or conflicting combinations of ideas (the entries for Star Wars and Spirited Away, for example), and others suffer from repetitive language. There may be only so many ways to say "This film is meaningful to me," "What a powerful portrayal," or "It's still remarkable decades after its release," but having more room would help approach these ideas differently and in ways more tailored to each film.

While reading 100 Films to See before You Die, I started wondering about the actual point of lists like this. At their worst, they are prescriptive, pedantic, and lazy and conceal the diversity of examples within whatever the topic may be. At their best, they present new ideas or new ways of considering material with which readers are already familiar, either through the perspective of the particular writer or the interrelationships that develop when items are grouped together. This book is far more the latter, helped by the breadth of cinematic cultures and eras it pulls from. Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading.

  • Both intensity and lightness have their purposes. A gentle or light-hearted film can be just as memorable as an epic or heavy one. 
  • There is a very complicated—and probably hard to define and even harder to produce—relationship between what filmmakers want to do and the resources they choose to do it. A seemingly strange combination of actors and story might be used to brilliant effect, just as a classic pairing of director and writer might fall flat if it isn't suited to its environment or purpose.
  • About halfway through I was suddenly struck by how man-centered the movies are. This isn't Chopra's fault, of course, since so many films come from cultures that value and prioritize men's stories and perspectives over those of women and children (and probably men as audience members too). Many of the films have heterosexual romances, of course, but I get the sense from the descriptions that most of these stories are really about men. But this bias...it is insidious, creeping into our language and concepts. For example, the entry on Charulata has no explicit mention of Madhabi Mukherjee's performance of the title character who is very clearly the central character and the point of view of the narrative; the text is about how Ray tells the story. I am all for Ray's telling of this story, but what a disappointment not to hear about the performance around which it all hinges.
  • It's so easy to focus just on performances and plot in a film, but successful movies generally involve high-quality execution (defined on a case-by-case basis) of many other elements that we tend to forget about until the technical Oscars. Those of us who love popular Indian cinema are fluent in the importance of music, but even then I think we tend to focus on the song pieces and not nearly as often discuss the background score, even though it a much longer work that needs to be consistent and cohesive in ways that songs don't. I didn't keep a list of all the different technical aspects Chopra mentions, but overall this book is more than just stars and directors. It was a welcome reminder to me that I would like to learn and think more about all the talent that goes into films.
  • There is room in one's film-loving heart for stories and performances of different scales, as well as movies that examine or celebrate basic human experiences in very different settings or flourish in different tones. And we will be happier and better-informed viewers if we look past things like languages we don't speak or environments that challenge us.
  • Similarly, there's no reason to stick close to your own home culture, no matter how prolific your own home may be—look at all the wonderful, interesting films there are to enjoy in the world. This summer I (finally) discovered the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast*, and in an old episode the panelists were talking about how baffled they are by people who boast about what they haven't seen or read. Why would you celebrate your ignorance?
  • The human experience is complex and worthy of exploration and depiction in a range of colors: humor, love, respect, regret, frustration.
To read this book happily, you have to accept the personal nature of it—these are films that have impacted the author in some way, and you cannot really argue against someone's experiences with art—and if you want critical or comparative thought, this isn't the thing to read. Chopra invites us into her own collection, and we come along because she is someone whom we trust to have thought a lot about cinema over her years as a reviewer and interviewer.

* As a writing prompt to get me more active on this site again and to vary what I discuss, I'm thinking about doing my own miniature version of each week's PCHH episode focusing on Indian cinema (probably mostly Hindi and Bengali, knowing me, and probably mostly not new releases). Their format is generally two longer discussions on some kind of theme (the concept and current iterations of the movie franchise, "sitcom moms," depictions of government, etc.), or an idea pulled from current events (major film release, the ending of a tv show, an article that has made waves, etc.)., and they end with "What's Making Us Happy This Week," which varies widely with each participant and often reflects their recent activities and discoveries. Does that sound at all like something you'd like to read?

Saturday, September 07, 2013

in conversation with Minikhan: Shuddh Desi Romance

Beth: Can you be objective about what we saw today, given that you are the de facto patron saint of Yash Raj Films and at least two of your films' posters make appearances?
Minikhan: This isn't really an SRK, arm-fling, filmi kind of film, so I think I have only an average-viewer level of investment.
Beth: Its few moments of filminess actually feel intrusive and artificial.
Minikhan: Agree. Mostly the songs—
Beth: That whistling—oi.
Minikhan: These characters are playful enough but having them break out into side-by-side choreography and run slow-mo through tourist attractions doesn't feel authentic to them.
Beth: Sometimes songs are wonderful reminders of the joy and power of escapism, or even projection of imagination or wishes, but I didn't get that here.
Minikhan: No. I think the songs would be better just playing in the background for the characters so that we know they hear them, and we can see them reflect or react to what they hear, but somehow them mouthing the words didn't work.
Beth: I haaaaate the electronically processed vocals on "Gulabi" for what they do to break the illusion and ruin the moment, but I do really love the concept of pink representing new love. Especially in the pink city. Pink confetti is how it feels.
Minikhan: If people didn't already know you're a romantic softie, they do now.
Beth: Hello, Kettle? This is Pot. That song really woks visually for me: all the little mirrors reflecting the couple back to each other, how they only have eyes for each other despite the beauty and activity of the settings.

Minikhan: I was really worried this was going to veer off into Cocktail territory for the female characters and their life choices.
Beth: It's a much less judgmental film.
Minikhan: Would you also call it modern?
Beth: Maybe. On the one hand, it has young people living essentially on their own and doing things we don't often see or hear about in films.
Minikhan: And on the other, the wise elder (Rishi Kapoor)—
Beth: RISHI 4EVA!!!!
Minikhan: Absolutely. His character is always right and is associated with that most unshakeable of traditions, the wedding. And it's so interesting that a big part of his business seems to be accessorizing and presenting false facades. He's more...well, band baaja baaraat than he is matchmaker or pandit.
Beth: Hmm.
Minikhan: He's not in any way stifling, though, is he?
Beth: No, though I am also not sure he would choose for these character the way they eventually choose for themselves.
Minikhan: But I doubt he condemns them for what they do Or even minds. Or even thinks it's any of his business.

Beth: The only people who insert their opinions are older men who have no close connection to any of the central players, and they're both initially feared and then dismissed as irrelevant. That's a nice message.
Minikhan: It takes some guts to ignore people who think they have a right to judge you, and the film's trio of protagonists have a lot of courage.
Beth: Possibly more courage than brains.
Minikhan: And definitely more courage than empathy, at least at first. Is that what this film is about, do you think? Learning to be careful of other people while also standing up for yourself?
Beth: Could be. I'm struck by what it did with lying and truth-telling. It rewards honesty, both towards oneself and towards others.

Beth: A few hours after we saw it, are there any moments that still stick out for you? Mine is when Gayatri (Parineeti Chopra) says to the camera "The third or fourth time your heart breaks, it doesn't make noise anymore." I'm surprised I managed not to burst into tears. I wonder what she means by that: that other people don't notice your heartbreak or that you don't even notice it? Or that you have no energy to give to a fight and just lie silent and defeated?
Minikhan: That is a lovely piece of writing, and we expect no less from Jaideep Sahni. He has created a few notable thoughtful, layered women in his career so far. He's responsible for two of your top five favorite Hindi films, isn't he?
Beth: He is, and while Shuddh Desi Romance hasn't catapulted onto that list, it's a film that the people who made it can be proud of.
Minikhan: Instead of a favorite moment, I have a...what, a chain, a garland of little bits. The plot is circular in a way that probably sounds boring if I were to describe it to someone who hasn't seen the film, but the way they build out of the repetition is interesting. It's a spiral staircase rather than a broken record on a turntable. These characters are not the quickest learners out there, but they are given the time they need and deserve to grow up a little bit. They have to repeat the experiences that challenge them until they learn.
Beth: And when the film finishes, it isn't with "Bang! Happy ending! Now we're done!" It is happy, but it is also just a phase in which one particular decision is made and the characters clearly know they'll have more decisions to make in the future. It's kind of how I wish Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani had ended, because that one has more certainty than the nature of the characters can fully support. This one feels more truthful to them.

Minikhan: I also like that Raghu (Sushant Singh Rajput) is never bullied into being someone he isn't ready to be but also isn't a completely juvenile manchild. He's young, confused, and scared, and those things aren't solved automatically just because runtime is approaching.
Beth: Now I'm wondering if, when coupled with the pivotal conversation between the two women, who are interesting and in-progress adults in their own right, there's some kind of statement about the increasing irrelevance of the male?
Minikhan: True, there's no place for an alpha male in a story like this or a film with a tone like this one. Power doesn't enter into this story at all.
Beth: No one is in big business, there are no governments or banks at stake, no one is saving the world or a city or even a family. Everyone is taking responsibility for themselves first and the people immediately connected to them second, and the world is as small and manageable as that.
Minikhan: * checks biceps * Capital-H Heroes will still have their place, but it's nice to be reminded that not every mainstream film has them.
Beth: It's more than telling stories that don't involve pummeling people, though. It's about women getting to say as much, to be on screen as much, affecting the outcome as much, controlling and deciding for themselves as much.

Minikhan: Speaking of choices, that Gayatri has an eye for textiles.
Beth: Gloriously so. And costumer Varsha Shilpa deserves special attention for creating a wardrobe for Gayatri that to me seems every bit as distinctive and memorable—iconic, even—as Babli's. I can't tell you how pleased I was to be wearing a tunic-length shirt with button tabs for rolled-up sleeves just like Gayatri has on in half of the movie.
Minikhan: Raghu's shirts and the suits of the wedding guests are also amazing. In thirty years people will ogle them just like we love Shashi's button-downs from the 70s.
Beth: Absolutely. I love it when lead movie actors can be made to look like regular people, and I most definitely saw many twentysomething men wearing exactly what he wears as they followed me around the monuments of Jaipur.
Minikhan: Told you biceps still have their uses.

Beth: I think we agree that Parineeti and Sushant are expressive and believable and fun to watch. What do you make of Vaani Kapoor?
Minikhan: Her role is very hard to talk about without spoiling anything. I'm not sure I understood her motivation—or rather, that her actions feel completely supported by what she explained out loud. As for the actor, she has a calmness that is a nice contrast to both the other leads.
Beth: A few hours later and I can't remember much about her—or her role—but maybe that's how it's supposed to be. She certainly isn't bad.
Minikhan: Not being overshadowed in this by Parineeti, presence-wise, is no small challenge.

Minikhan: Anything else?
Beth: Why are there so many references to Katrina Kaif, as opposed to other hot Bollywood commodities, other than that she's in Dhoom 3?
Minikhan: Let us not speak of it.
Beth: You haven't forgiven her for yrfing all over Jab Tak Hai Jaan, have you?
Minikhan: I have not.
Beth: Fair enough. I think it's time for a dance break. I still have "Tere Mere Beech Mein" is stuck in my head. Want to push back the chairs and work on our side-by-side choreo?
Minikhan: As Raghu would say, "I don't mind."

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

another look at Jewel Thief

The last few months have been full of friendly appearances at other sites and publications. The latest is an essay on Jewel Thief at issue 2 of The Indian Trumpet, specifically on why I think this film that has so many unknowns and so much suspense and mystery is a joy to watch long after you already know what happens. It is available in the lovely online version of the magazine here (flip to page 16) or as a pdf here
Love the art!