Hindi movies


For a while now, I have been meaning to write a blog post on Rowdy Rathore.  But just when I figured out what I wanted to say, Baradwaj Rangan beat me to it.

To be fair, he does it better than I would have. So let me speak of a couple of peripheral observations that I had while watching the movie.

First, I think the appeal of Rowdy Rathore is rooted partly in the fact that it seems to be very obviously winking at the audience. The poster art is a masterpiece — it is so deliberately lurid that I couldn’t help but smile. (It also occurred to me, in passing, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali probably made a deal with Prabhudeva years ago that they would share a colour palette, and that whatever was left over after the former was done with Saawariya would be the latter’s to play with.)

The second is a slightly more sober observation: I noticed this not just in the three versions of this film but also in a bunch of others — the stakes have constantly risen in the way films portray evil. Maybe it is because we are exposed to filmi villainy so often that we are desensitized to the more garden-variety bad guy (smuggler, gangster etc.). I don’t know. But every once in a while, someone finds it necessary to up the ante. When they remade Agneepath, for instance, it wasn’t sufficient to disgrace the teacher by making him seem like he visited a prostitute — they had to make him rape a crippled schoolgirl. This movie decides that the way to make the villain despicable is to have him rape a cop’s wife over several days while the cop looks on helplessly. Where will this stop?

Linked to both these observations, but in a meta sort of way, is a conversation I had a friend of mine recently. She asked me how Rowdy Rathore was, and I immediately said, “Fantastic! It was exactly what it intended to be.” I meant it in a half-serious, half-sarcastic sort of way, but the comment led to a discussion on whether a film should be judged by its content or by its ability to do what it intended to do.

In general, I believe in the latter concept more than she does. A trivial example would be movies across different genres that I love in equal measure. A trickier example would be something like Nishabd, which I found to be a very well made movie about a subject that not many people were okay with. But the whole conversation made me wonder. Would I have been okay with a film that glorified, say, child abuse, just because it was a very well made film about the subject? The answer is obviously no — we all have our holy cows.

But what does my threshold of tolerance indicate, in and as of itself? No easy answers, I’m afraid.

Sarfarosh holds fond memories for me: it was the first film I saw with my wife. We had barely become acquainted and had gone out to watch it with a mutual friend. Not exactly a first date, but hey. But even if you ignore my personal bias , I think there is much to admire.

I was reminded of it last weekend when I was channel surfing and chanced upon a documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Clips from his films, with a voice-over providing critical analysis, were interspersed with clips of the man himself, talking about his work. Despite his slow, pedantic way of speaking — like lecturers who used to put me to sleep back in college — I was riveted.

My favourite part was when he was explaining the bomb principle. I’d read the two line version earlier in an Ebert review, but this was the first time I actually heard him explain it. It goes something like this:

Imagine two people sitting at a table and talking about, say baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb that had been placed under the table suddenly goes off. You, the audience, feel surprised and shocked for maybe 30 seconds before the movie has you in the grip of some other emotion. On the other hand, what if you knew right off the bat that there was a bomb under the table and that it was primed to go off in five minutes? Those two guys would be talking about baseball and you would be spending five minutes wondering if they would realize that there’s a bomb under their table and that they need to get away or disarm the bombright away.

Sarfarosh is like a movie-length illustration of this principle, in the guise of a police procedural about uncovering an arms supply chain that leads from a green-themed neighboring nation to a tribal leader with a penchant for mayhem. Not so much a whodunit as a whoalldunit. The film tells you this right at the beginning, so the rest of its running time involves a group of policemen trying to figure out how a tribal leader got his hands on an AK47 rifle and following the clues all the way to the source. Barring a few surprises along the way, you’re mostly just watching them find out what you already know. And yet you find yourself drawn into the process.

Which is why my favourite scene in Sarfarosh is the title song sequence that plays over the opening credits, where they show you the supply chain. There is such admirable economy in the depiction of a streamlined arms smuggling process with several links in the chain. It all seems simple, until you realize how painstaking it is to start with a spent cartridge at a crime scene and work your way backwards.

It’s a dirty trick, really: setting a movie in Kolkata during Durga Puja, knowing that this very fact would make it nearly impossible for me to find fault with it. I lived in Kolkata for around 6 years as a grad student, and I haven’t lived in any city before or since that I have loved quite as much.

The Kolkata of Kahaani is not the city you see in most other movies. When a heavily pregnant Vidya Venkatesan Bagchi arrives at Dum Dum airport, she asks the cab driver to take her to Kalighat police station to file a missing persons report on her husband. You don’t see establishing shots of Howrah bridge and Victoria memorial like you would in a lesser movie, because:

  1. Sujoy Ghosh wants to get on with the story right away, and (more importantly)
  2. If you had to get to Kalighat from the airport, you would most likely not take a route that involves Howrah bridge.

You often hear about a location being another character in a movie. Filmmakers often use this phrase in pre-release publicity, and it was bandied about in this case as well. And you know what, I have never quite understood what it meant. But what I do understand is when the location of a story is so integral to its milieu that the broad outlines disappear and all that remains are the little details that provide the place’s real signature. Kahaani is set in the Kolkata I know and love, not in tourist postcard version.

But I digress. Let us get back to poor Bidda Bagchi (the V-to-B substitution is well known to non-Bengalis by now, but this name provides evidence of another quirk of Bengali pronunciation — when you have a bunch of consonants bunched together, you just say the first one twice and move on, sort of like a Taylor series approximation — and I digress again, sorry)…

She files a missing persons report, goes to the guest house where her husband said he was staying, goes to his workplace… here is a woman who realizes that she needs to find her husband herself, rather than rely upon law enforcement officials whose computers display “System Error” more often than search results. She is helped by a sympathetic cop named Rana, hindered by a foul-mouthed, less-than-sympathetic Intelligence Bureau officer named Khan, stared at by passers-by, threatened, nearly killed, and yanked around by the clues piling up around two men — one (her husband) whose existence the error-prone systems refuse to acknowledge, and another whose existence the IB wishes to cover up.

Through it all, she remains stoic, even good-humoured. She follows the clues to wherever they lead her, picking locks and hacking computers along the way (you do realize I’m a cop, don’t you, asks an exasperated Rana at one point) until she finds what she wants. The story has a big twist at this point, which I will not spoil for you except to say that I am not completely convinced that the story adds up perfectly in hindsight.

But that is, to be fair, a small quibble. The real pleasure of the film is not the story but the manner of its telling. The pace is unrelenting, but still finds space for little pleasures — the odd sarcastic response, a little teasing on a tram ride, a completely understandable crush. The characters are uniformly interesting (the standout being Bob Biswas, whose day job as a life insurance agent is probably the film’s funniest running gag) and the performances match up.

But the best aspects, I think, are the camerawork and the editing. If you have been on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja, the one thing you will remember most vividly is how crowded it gets. It’s as if nobody is staying home watching TV. With so many people around, you will most likely feel like you are constantly being stared at. Somewhat expected when you are waddling around at a brisk pace looking like you might go into labor any second now, but invaluable when you’re the protagonist in the midst of a thriller and the director wishes to ratchet up the paranoia. And while all this happens against the backdrop of a sleepy metropolis waking up to its own beauty, you even get your obligatory shots of Victoria Memorial and Howrah Bridge. Happy?

A couple of bookkeeping entries to end this post:

  1. I have not said anything about Vidya Balan. I don’t need to. Let’s just say that I cannot imagine anyone else doing this part — Tamilian with an affinity for Bengalis, woman with lousy luck/taste in men, character requiring a strong performer to do it justice — and move on.
  2. Much of this review has involved digressing in the middle of a sentence to fill in a detail that captivated me. Life in Kolkata is a bit like that.

I often wonder about star/numerical ratings for films. How does a film earn, say, 3 stars out of four? Is there a sort of formula employed by those who give out these ratings, or is it a quantified version of what is essentially a qualitative reaction? Is there an objective way of doing this?

Here’s a potential algorithm: Start off with a baseline score. Anything the movie does right, it gets plus points. Anything the movie does wrong, it gets minus points. Add them to the baseline and you get your final score. This could be above or below the baseline, depending on whether the movie got more things right than wrong, or vice versa.

According to this algorithm, EMAET would end up with a baseline score. Not because the pluses and minuses even out, but because the film does nothing right or wrong. It has about as much edge as a perfect sphere and about as much personality as a dead bacterium.

If I try really hard, I guess I can come up with a few things to say. On the plus side, there’s this well-observed dinner scene late in the movie where the hero essentially blows up at his parents. The ending seems sensible. On the minus side, the lead character gets totally drunk for no reason other than that the plot needs him to do that and get married in Vegas, the world capital of Marrying While Intoxicated. Okay, that’s it.

Why did they make this movie at all? Even the cast doesn’t seem to care. When Kareena Kapoor screams in one scene, she sounds so tentative, it’s like she’s just pantomiming a screaming action in a silent movie. Her character is written as a version of Geet, the one she played in Jab We Met. Except, this one is played as if Geet fell into a vat of valium as a baby. Imran Khan has an excuse — his character is a milquetoast to begin with, so he can just claim to be faithful to the script. Not that this helps.

There is an exchange late in the film where the heroine describes the hero as being perfectly average. Having had to deal with his parents’ extraordinary expectations of him all his life, he sees this as the nicest thing anyone has ever said to him. Now, I could say the same thing about the movie. It is perfectly average, with no hope of anything on the variance front. But to paraphrase Hans Landa, where our conclusions differ is that I do not consider this a compliment.

 

In all honesty, I cannot claim to be a big fan of Dev Anand. The man kept making movies well past his sell-by date, and barring a few, I cannot bring myself to sit through his films. Having said that, I have nothing but admiration for a man who refuses to retire. It takes a special kind of obstinacy to be able to do that. And what really brought it home was this tribute by his nephew Shekhar Kapur.

Kapur narrates an indicent following the release of his film debut, a film named Ishq Ishq Ishq that his uncle Dev had produced and directed. He speaks of how, just after the release, the man was taking calls from well-wishers and distributors. Over the course of the evening, it became clear that the film was a disaster at the box office.

Then the calls stopped. No one called and the loneliness of failure hung in the room. Dev Anand has just lost everything. All his money and everything he sold to make his most ambitious project ever. There are few more intimate moments you could share with a courageous man than his coming to terms with complete defeat. He was sad. Reflective.

For all of five minutes. He then looked at me and smiled.

” I just be back ‘Shekharonios’ (thats what he called me) and went into the bedroom of the suite. I should have felt sorry for my first foray out as a (minor) actor flopping, but was too caught up in the incredible drama unfolding in front of me.

Ten minutes Dev Anand emerged. His his eyes were vibrant. His face excited. He was unable to sit down for his excitement. Looked me in the eyes.

” Shekharonios, I just thought of a great plot for my next film !!”

He picked up his register. Took out a pen and started to write. How does a man who just lost of everything come to terms with it so easily? I was left gaping. But knew it was time for me to leave him alone. To write and plan his next film. He never talked about Ishq Ishq again.

Thats the Dev Uncle I knew.

But the Dev Uncle I did not know. The Dev Sahib, the Dev Anand that the world did not know, was the man coming to terms with himself in 10 minutes in that room.

If there is a more moving tribute to Dev Anand than that last sentence, I have not read it.

 

Nearly every review of Rockstar will tell you the following things:

  • Ranbir and Rahman are in top form.
  • They are let down by a meandering script that shines in individual moments but lacks brevity in some portions and depth in others.
  • Nargis Fakhri looks like a million bucks. Acts worth a dime, if you’re feeling generous.

For the record, I agree with all of those things. Let me focus, instead, on a few specifics that occurred to me. Sort of like Baradwaj Rangan‘s Bullet Point Review series.

  • It is now well known that this was Shammi Kapoor’s last performance. He appears in just a handful of scenes, and speaks probably 4 lines in all. But I will say this: if the man had to bow out with a brief role, he can be glad it was this one. What stands out, though, is an image of him that appears in the opening credits in lieu of an “In Memoriam” line. That image says everything you need to know about Shamsher Raj Kapoor.
  • Every so often, during the musical performances, you find yourself pulling back for a moment to reflect on Rahman’s genius. My favourite moment came during the Katiya Karoon sequence in Kashmir, when one of the interludes seemed to hark back to the keyboard intro to Pudhu vellai mazhai (Yeh haseen vaadiyaan) from Roja. You could almost see him winking at you.
  • What makes Ranbir’s performance so good is the fact that he manages to create something credible out of an extremely confused character. We aren’t talking about a rebel without a cause — we are talking about one without a clue. Having said that, the scene where he tells his manager (Kumud Mishra is a pitch-perfect performance) that he doesn’t want his heart broken is, well, heart-breaking in its urgency and need. Much of the film shows a character who has erected walls around himself. Even his romance seems not so much experienced as played out, what with all the epigrammatic dialogue and sex-obsessed bucket-listing. This is the scene where the walls crumble. The following scene in the ICU is just as good — it starts off exactly like a lot of melodramatic scenes if that ilk, but quickly descends into a shocked silence.
  • The screen time seems to be more or less equally divided between his romance and his life as a rock star. The bridge between the two — how his life feeds his art — is not built. A few scenes detailing the creative process would’ve really helped.
  • Also, the film seems to suggest that Jordan’s popularity is linked to clever marketing of his negative image. Is that all there is to it? What do his listeners really feel about his music? I would’ve loved to see that.
  • Two siblings (one of each lead character), two shades of loyalty. There is a moment when you see what looks like Ranbir Kapoor staring at his own poster, then the camera pans to reveal his sister. Outstandingly done.
  • The songs are extremely well-staged. Be it Harshdeep Kaur providing a playful soundtrack over the lead pair’s escapades, or the way Sadda Haq builds slowly and then virtually explodes on stage. And if there is a better point in the movie to play Naadaan parinde, I am not sure what it is.
  • Finally, that little gem of a conversation the movie ends on. This is not extraordinary dialogue per se, but its nonlinear placement in the film elevates it. And watch Ranbir’s expression when he looks back at the screaming crowds and sees them as if for the first time. Here is a musician realizing that the music, really, is all he has left.

ps: I was reading a couple of lovely blog posts on the film (here and here) and the term “accidental rockstar” seemed to resonate. So I weighed in with this comment. Thought I’d reproduce it here:

I wonder if Jordan’s career progression as a musician is supposed to be sort of an ironic riff on his mentor’s initial comment about pain being the engine that drives a musician. It appears that his general air of being a bit pissed off and disconnected from the world around him allows his music to mean whatever it does to his listeners.

The Sadda Haq sequence, for instance, shows a whole bunch of folks shouting out that slogan, and none of them probably mean anything to Janardhan, nor does he mean anything to them. But is that the point Imtiaz is trying to make, that the music could mean different things to different people, and that Jordan’s image, however marketable it is, doesn’t really mean a thing to either Janardhan or his listeners when it comes right down to it?

For me, the key moment comes right at the end when the man seems to see the audience for the first time. It’s as if he’s thinking, “So this is what Khatana bhai was talking about. Damned if it didn’t turn out like he said it would.”

A few weeks ago, when my 15 year old cousin was visiting and wanted to watch a funny movie, the first one the came to mind was Arsenic and Old Lace. He loved it, of course.

Once I managed to convince my cousin that my recommendations weren’t hopeless, I went on to recommend The General, Chupke Chupke, Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Pushpak… all of which would make my list of all-time favourite funny movies. Had he been older, the list would’ve included a few more gems. But even if I had a Groundhog Day experience and found myself having to recommend a funny movie to my cousin ad infinitum, I suspect I’d always pick Arsenic and Old Lace first. So there you go.

Drama is a tougher genre, but if I had to come up with just one recommendation, it would be The Shawshank Redemption. There’s a reason why that film is perched atop of IMDB’s Top 250 films list, even above The Godfather.

Action is easier — Sholay, no question. If someone were to screen the movie today in a multiplex and sit among the audience, he’d probably find a whole bunch of voices mouthing the dialogues in sync with the characters. Including mine.

Musicals — Top Hat, I guess. The sight of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing is enough to make anyone smile. Even those who have memories of its remake (Hadh Kar Di Aapne), intruding upon the experience, and that’s saying something.

Romance is tougher. I don’t know if I could pick Mouna Raagam over Once or When Harry Met Sally, or vice versa.

I could go on about other films that stand out in memory. Rashomon, for instance, has had a greater impact on me than any other film I have seenCitizen Kane inspired me to write the short story I am fondest of.

But here’s the thing I realized while trying to compile this list. As much as picking a “favourites” list is subjective, the very act of picking a favourite presupposes, I think, a desire to find someone who likes your favourites as much as you do.

Even when I pick a film like Before Sunrise as my all-time favourite (and it is), I know it isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone. But by making this statement, I am also expressing the hope that someone who hasn’t seen or heard of this film will be tempted to seek it out. Come to think of it, that is as good a reason for blogging about the movies as any other.

Because let’s face it: there’s a certain pleasure to be had in hearing someone else shriek in delighted laughter when Cary Grant says in Arsenic and Old Lace, “When you say others, you mean… others? As in, more than one others?”

Through their experience of discovering those films for the first time, I relive my own.

ps: This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com.

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