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The Mystical Relation of Hair & Ice Cream

Why should hair be so inextricably tied to my emotions, I don’t know – but it is a fact that a good haircut can uplift me for a week, while a terrible one has left me in tears more than once.

And the reaction is instant. Serve me a bad meal and I can somehow suffer through it, making appreciative noises as I go. Take me out on the mother of all disaster dates and I will still thank you for a lovely evening and promise to keep in touch. I am the master of the easy let-down. But cut my hair (hell, just style it) in a way I don’t approve, and my reaction to it is completely physical. My face gets red, my throat chokes up, tears flood my eyes, I start breathing heavily – all symptoms, in fact, of my primitive rage. It’s always been this way, too.

When I was seven, for instance, my mother persuaded me to get a “smart crop”. Unfortunately, this turned out to be code for what you might recognize today as the Stereotypical Lesbian Crop. Imagine a really butch woman without access to a talented hairstylist. Back when I was a kid, it was the basic Modern Indian Working Woman Haircut. Short and extremely unfussy, you could probably come out looking freshly barbered on the other side of a tornado. The only people who ever complimented me on the results of that disastrous trip to the salon were my mother, the nice Chinese lady who’d followed my mother’s instructions against her better judgment, and a teacher of mine who sported that exact same boxy cut. Call me a diva but I did not appreciate looking like a middle aged schoolteacher whilst still in the second grade. I ended up throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the salon, whereupon my mother promptly ordered an emergency pedicure for herself and banished me to the reception area where I spent the next fortyfive minutes cooling my heels, seething in fury, and frightening the rest of the clientele with my panting rage while tugging fiercely at my hair in an effort to make it come out of my head a little faster.

Before you think I was some kind of special needs child – the alarmed receptionist definitely thought so – I should say that I already knew that particular effort wasn’t going to work. It was just another example of my once-ungovernable temper driving me to do things that were the outside of stupid.

But the roots of my hair-related rage go back a long way. It all started, I suppose, when my grandfather decided the time had come to get the baby fluff shaved off my head. I rewarded him by screaming like a banshee – pressing every nerve ending you possibly could in a manic depressive, I imagine. I was brought back home posthaste, victoriously bearing a full head of hair. It grew and grew, curling into loose ringlets that charmed my mother so much, she forgot I was a baby and not her doll. I was, therefore, within sight of knocking on three before she decided to get my hair cut.

I don’t know why she stuck my dad with the job though. Maybe she felt it would be a waste of money to take me with her to the ladies salon where they had things like proper lighting? Or she saw what I’d done to her poor father and just didn’t want to deal with the hassle? Maybe my dad offered like the responsible parent he is? Who knows! But I ended up accompanying my dad to the barbershop he frequented. My first memory of getting a haircut is of a smiling man with a neat beard and Daddy sitting next to me, telling me Not. To. Move. An. Inch. To this day, I can’t relax and get all chatty with a hairstylist because my entire brain is hardwired with my father’s voice telling me Not. To. Move. An. Inch. And so I won’t by God!

At the end of this tense period, where I would sit scarcely daring to breathe while Daddy sat next to me and ostensibly studied me carefully to make sure I was Not Moving An Inch (I couldn’t really tell because I couldn’t see with all the hair in my face), we’d go for a treat.

Our routine was always the same. First came the haircut. Next came the ice cream. In my memory, the barbershop is a sort of antiseptic pale green-blue; the color of a government office. The ice cream shop, on the other hand, resembles an Old West Saloon, complete with wood paneling and rustic furniture as well as a noisy air conditioner. This can’t possibly be true since nobody else remembers my description of it and I think it highly unlikely that someone would go to the trouble of building a secret Old West Saloon for Ice Cream in deepest, southiest South India for my benefit alone. The reasonable explanation is that it somehow got jumbled up with a scene from one of those Westerns my brother was addicted to, but reasonability’s a party pooper so who cares what it has to say?

As I was saying… my father used to take me to an ice cream parlor that resembled an Old West Saloon. And for some reason this was behind the main taxi stand. Because that is a perfectly logical place to build an eatery. Vanilla with carbon monoxide topping. Mmm-mm-mmmmmm!

I remember the inside of this fine establishment as a crowded and rather dingy place, which means it must have been tiny indeed given my toddler’s perspective. I’m sad to say it did not survive the years and thus I have no adult contrast to offer. I’m also pretty sure it smelled like milk in there. I’m going to think of that as a positive. Anyway, as soon as we got in the door, Daddy would head straight for the glass counter and ask me for my preference.

I was three; my nose barely reached the part where the metal ended and the glass began. I couldn’t see a thing but I did enjoy breathing on the tiny bit of cool glass that my face could reach, and looking thoughtful. Eventually, I would place my order: strawberry. And Daddy would place his: vanilla. If he was feeling adventurous, he would switch it up to chocolate but I think that only happened once or something.

I don’t even know how we decided I was a strawberry aficionado. For all I know, my dad marched in there and growled, “What do little girls like to eat?” At which point the terrified man behind the counter probably said, “Strawberry!” because it was all pink and girly and he was afraid to say he didn’t know. Voila! I liked strawberry. And since it never occurred to Daddy to pick me up and show me the various options, I didn’t even know there were more than three flavors of ice cream until I was about five, which is when I learned about the glories of the mighty pistachio.

That was the summer my second cousin came back from the United States and opened a fancy parlor that both manufactured and sold ice cream that you could order and consume curbside in the luxury of your very own car! My auntie took me there one night and introduced me to my first falooda. And my life was never the same again.

But that is to fast forward. Back in our Old West Ice Cream Parlor, we were being served ice cream. Not scoops or scones, but slabs of it. There’s a small part of me that still thinks of waffle cones as exotic because my lizard brain thinks ice cream is naturally served as slabs on cheap white porcelain plates. Good times.

We would sit there solemnly consuming our ice cream, until Daddy had scraped his plate clean and I was still sitting there with half of mine on my plate. My mother was bringing me up to share so I always asked him if he’d like some of mine. My father, meanwhile, was bringing me up to not share eatables with him so he always refused. He would then sit in silence, watching me make heroic attempts to finish the entire plate before taking pity on me when I was about three-quarters through and proposing we leave.

It was powerful magic, for an undemonstrative man and his willful daughter. And like all magic, it was contained to that moment in time. For years afterwards, as soon as I graduated to the big girls’ fancy salon, I couldn’t stand the taste of strawberry ice cream. I would go out of my way to avoid it. Every mouthful tasted like melted plastic mixed with sugar and a slightly sour aftertaste that reminded me of spoiled milk. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. I was disgusted by it. Even today, when I’ve made my peace with it, it still wouldn’t crack my top twenty flavors. I’d sooner eat blackcurrant.

These days, I tell my dad he should get a pedicure and take him out for coffee. That is our thing now – I push him to try and move an inch while he lets me order unfamiliar items off the menu. It’s a different kind of magic but one thing remains the same: we have a standing date anytime either one of us cuts our hair.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2011 in Personal

 

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The Ginger Giant of Pink City

Personally, I thought this ad and especially its behind-the-scenes was way funnier than his new show. Conan speaking Hindi is just as hilarious as you’d expect, not to mention the sheepish-half bewildered local talent he towers over. I’m a little concerned about his upcoming remake of Outsourced though.

Noooo. Don’t do it, Coco!

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Newsmakers, Television, Video

 

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Before RED

Before <i>RED</i>

The best thing about the internet is that some amazing recommendations can come from the unlikeliest places, including random message boards. For instance, I recently found out that long before they made RED, which stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous in the 2010 movie of the graphic novel starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Brian Cox as a quintet of international intelligence old-timers who take on a high-level conspiracy that threatens their lives, there was Hopscotch (1980).

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch is about CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) who is REPRetired Extremely Pissed.

It all starts in Berlin, where Kendig, one of those older men in grey whom nobody notices, walks into a beer garden and laconically points out young spies to West German intelligence officers while conducting what appears to be an aria in his head. He leaves the main man alone – that is Yaskov (Herbert Lom), head of the KGB, well-known to Kendig for the past 20 years – so he can confront him alone in the street, remind him gently of West Germany’s great dislike of Soviet spies, and retrieve the sensitive information before sending him on his way.

Yaskov tells Kendig that he could make a run for it. As the thought of the two of them chasing each other all over Berlin comes to Kendig’s mind, he shakes his head: “We’d look like Laurel and Hardy!” he says in disgust. Yaskov agrees, hands it over and lives to fight another day.

Unfortunately for Kendig, things don’t go over as smoothly Stateside where his new boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) is the result of a regrettable internal promotion from the “Department of Dirty Tricks”. Clearly, they frowned at showing civility to a Soviet agent at the DDT, because Myerson turns Kendig into a glorified file clerk awaiting retirement for letting Yaskov go instead of bringing him in.

Or rather, Myerson tries. Kendig walks out of Myerson’s office, proudly decorated with photos of him doing manly things like shoot and fish as well shaking hands with Nixon, and coolly destroys his CIA file, hops on a flight to Salzburg, and arrives just in time to take part in a mysterious, extended conversation about the intricacies of wine with a foreign lady. This is Isobel (Glenda Jackson), a sort-of-former lover and definitely-former agent  who quit to marry well and is now a well-off widow with a fearsome German Shepherd for a companion.

Isobel knows Kendig’s unexpected visit can’t be a good sign. But even she’s surprised when she finds out Meyerson, a little man with an unpleasant expression who decorates his office with pictures of him shaking hands with Nixon, catching fish, and shooting the camera while cautioning his wife against renting their vacation home out to filthy Democrats, is now his boss:

“See-you-next-Tuesday Meyerson?” she asks.

Kendig isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do now that he’s out of a job (other than listen to all the opera he wants) but a visit of commiseration from Yaskov gives him an idea – he’s going to write his memoirs! Detailing every last, horrifying, gut-wrenching, underhanded operation he’s been involved with over the past 20 years. Of course, this comes with a side effect of possible assassination as Isobel points out (which leads him to make this face), so he decides to send it out, one chapter at a time, to all the major intelligence agencies of the world.

Myerson is incensed enough to launch a manhunt. Especially since the book is mainly interested in exposing his shortcomings, in more ways than one. “Hello, you short person,” Kendig says cheerfully to a photo of Meyerson before he starts on another chapter. “Pay attention, shorty!”

As the CIA and the KGB (Kendig is spilling quite a bit about them as well and Yaskov is naturally interested in the CIA material, recognizing a valuable source of information if only he can get his hands on him) search for him, much to the amusement of the rest of the world, Kendig has found a nice little hideaway in Myerson’s Democrat-free vacation home. One hilarious (seriously!) bout of bad Southern accents later, the local chapter of the FBI is trying to shoot him out.

“I now know what the FBI stands for,” Myerson says bitterly as his beautiful, expensive house goes up in smoke along with his quarry. “Fucking Ballbusting Imbeciles!”

With Matthau singing The Barber of Seville at the Spanish border, a re-engineered Belgian Tiger Moth that glides in a graceful ballet around an infuriated Myerson, dumb sidekicks, loyal attack dogs, and the always-delightful Sam Waterston as Kendig’s protege-cum-replacement, it’s leagues removed from the kind of spy movies we see today. Myerson clearly won the war as far as pop culture is concerned.

But it’s also the reason why Hopscotch is absolutely ageless. And now available on Criterion. So you really have no excuse.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Dabangg for the Buck

<i>Dabangg</i> for the Buck

10 minutes into Dabangg, written and directed by Abhinav Kashyap who previously wrote the dialogue for Manorama Six Feet Under, and you realize why Hindi has all but ceded this kind of territory to Telugu and Tamil cinema: it requires a very specific kind of movie star to work.

First, you need a Star. Somebody with a rabid fan base and the kind of charisma that can’t be manufactured, no matter how many years you spent assisting famous directors or learning to dance from master choreographers or who you call Pop.

Next, he must willing to embrace a dhishum-dhishum flick entirely unironically. He’s not trying to re-interpret, deconstruct or elevate it. He’s simply and methodically bashing in the heads of random people who get in his way in a manner that makes you feel like he’s doing it for you as a personal favor.

And the cherry on top is that he must do all of this with enough style to sell it. “It” being whatever it is he’s peddling. Explosions, murder in broad daylight, defenestration, stealing, drinking, hookers, you name it. You want to be him, your wife wants to do him – at no point do you think, “Who’s he kidding?” or “What a psycho!” even if it’s true. That kind of ruins the movie.

Even in South India where they like to keep in practice, this is a tall order. You might think your average gorilla in shades could pull it off, but watch Salman Khan prove you wrong. The man is absolutely in his element as he joyfully smashes up a small town, blows shit up, creatively murders various people, courts a girl by threatening to beat currency upon her… and still effectively convey the idea that at heart he’s just a sad little boy who wants someone to love him. Awww.

I can’t think of a single other actor in Hindi today who could have pulled this off. Salman’s Chulbul Pandey is a beast held barely leashed by a crisp white shirt, and his offscreen persona only feeds into the animal magnetism onscreen. Movies like these channel the fantasy of the exotic pet – the heady rush at the thought of taming such a potentially lethal creature through nothing more than love. But for it to work, you need a believably dangerous persona to fuel the character – and there’s nobody more enigmatic or unpredictable in today’s carefully manicured Bollywood than Salman Khan.

Is it “good” cinema? Well, it’s entertaining cinema. A more cohesive follow-up to Wanted, the only thing it aspires to is a good time and that it delivers with glee. Into every life a little popcorn must fall and Dabangg a.k.a. The Adventures of Chulbul “Robin Hood” Pandey is exactly that. What is it about, who goes where and why – it’s about watching Salman Khan beat the ever-lovin’ hell out of everything in sight, animate and inanimate. No false advertising here: it’s everything the trailer promised and then some.

Somewhere in this Salman-fest you’ll also find producer Arbaaz Khan perfectly cast as the dimwitted half-brother, the delectably Amazon-esque Sonakshi Sinha as the unexpectedly grim love interest who squares off with Khan the few times she’s allowed on screen, and Sonu Sood putting all the Villainy 101 lessons he learned down South to good use. Additionally, there’s a short but honorable list of character actors to give able support: Dimple Kapadia, Vinod Khanna, Mahesh Manjrekar, Om Puri, Tinnu Anand, Anupam Kher, Mahie Gill and Malaika Arora in an item number when she ought to have been off eating a sandwich.

With hardly any gore in spite of the hailstorm of violence that surrounds Chulbul Pandey, just a hint of sex, and a tragic mother who fails to make you weep even as her sainted memory turns her son into The Incredible Bulk, Dabangg is just what I needed this weekend.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Four’s A Fun Crowd

What happens when you cast Errol Flynn in a movie tailor-made for Cary Grant? Rather pleasant things, it turns out!

Flynn Week, thus far, has brought you Flynn in period costume, army uniform, and cowboy outfit. In Four’s A Crowd (1938) he breaks out the tuxedo and top hat, giving the world a glimpse of a career that could have been.

The movie begins with Jean Christy (Rosalind Russell), fast-talking, fact-gathering, breezy reporter who sails into her workplace one day to find her newspaper about to down shutters thanks to the incompetence of young Pat Buckley (Patric Knowles), who inherited the company from his father without having the least idea how to run it other than hope to stay in business by printing what amounts to glowing PR releases for important men.

Jean knows what, or rather who, will fix their woes – Bob Lansford (Errol Flynn), the managing editor Pat fired for humiliating him by saving him from a disastrous marriage with a girl who just happened to be a full-blooded Native American. Ah, the olden days.

Anyway, Pat doesn’t have the time to think about silly things like a newspaper getting dismantled and reporters being thrown out of work – he’s madly in love with Lori Dillingwell (Olivia de Havilland), a slightly dim socialite he adoringly calls “Cootchie-cootchie-cootchie”.

Of course, this is not acceptable to Jean – his cavalier attitude towards the sacred press or his terms of endearment – and so she proceeds to con Lansford into helping the paper survive by dangling Lori in front of him. Lori, you see, is the granddaughter of The J. P. Dillingwell – the richest man in America. And also the one rich man severely disinterested in entrusting his reputation (and a couple of million of his money) to the greedy hands of Lansford who now makes a comfortable living polishing up the public images of men too rich to be well-liked through the judicious use of philanthropy.

“I should think you’d want to clean yourself up, if only for the sake of Posterity!” says Lansford.
“Posterity?” sneers Dillingwell. “What did Posterity ever do for me? Why should I do anything for Posterity?”
Right on, Grandpa!

A nasty newspaper campaign, orchestrated scenes reminiscent of the French Revolution, 21 baying hounds, assorted bits of animal abuse (seriously, what the hell is up with that in these movies? I guess I’m just not conditioned to the sensibilities of an era wherein children were treated better than animals), and a well-buttered railroad later, Lansford has landed his prized deal and convinced the two dimwits that he and Jean are in love with them. His troubles, of course, have just begun.

In the hands of Cary Grant, Lansford would be a charming rogue. Flynn is almost every bit as charming, but he is also a bit more slimy, a bit more of a stone-cold cad, a bit less believable as a man flustered by his complicated romantic life, and not in the least bit comforting the way Grant could be. The difference is most marked when you see the two men kiss their costars. When Flynn takes a woman in his arms, no matter how tightly they keep their mouths closed and how distorted the camera angle, you can’t help but suspect he’s slipping her a little tongue. With Grant, you know he’s being a gentleman – no matter how long Alfred Hitchcock kept him plastered to Eva Marie Saint.

If Flynn’s is an excellent performance, Four’s A Crowd belongs just as much to Rosalind Russell, who would go on to movie immortality and refine her ace reporter act opposite Grant in His Girl Friday. “You play hop-scotch from one double-cross to another,” says Jean, every bit as clever as him but much more principled. Jean is nobody’s fool, the only person wily enough to track and lay Lansford low through his many complicated machinations, single-handedly saves her newspaper as well as her boss’ dumb butt, and even gets her man in the end. My kinda hero.

In direct comparison, Olivia de Havilland is just annoyingly studied as the flibbertigibbet Lori. Her best scene is her introduction to Lansford but there are enough moments like the impromptu dance she puts on in the middle of the night to hoodwink her grandpa that hint at the lost potential of this role in the hands of an accomplished comedienne.

Patric Knowles, at the end of this rectangle, is the other pleasant surprise. Unlike his other roles with Flynn, he actually gets to do a fair bit here and he’s pretty good as the rich idiot who just wants to fall in love with a pretty girl and bring Lansford down a notch.

Unfortunately for Flynn’s possible career as a leading man in comedy, Four’s A Crowd is simply not in the same league as the other, more famous screwball comedies from the era. But I’d say that has a great deal more to do with director Michael Curtiz, who simply doesn’t have the magical touch of his contemporaries Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges even if he’s pretty good at injecting humor into his adventure movies, than Flynn. Still better than 90% of the trash you’ll see these days though.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review

 

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Rob(b)in My Heart

Rob(b)in My Heart

In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn runs around a forest in green tights with his BFF who looks like he’d like nothing better than a cuddle from his comrade in arms, and falls for a girl dressed in medieval Europe’s version of the hijab. Directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, it is an enduring classic. And watching it again for the purposes of my self-declared Flynn Week made me remember why.

If you speak English, you know the story. In fact, it’s been made and remade so often, for television and film, that I was pretty sure I had Robin-fatigue. Part of the reason for this feeling, quite apart from the individual merits of the films or television shows made after the 1938 version, I realized, is because when you’re remaking an old classic, the burden is on you to find “something new” to justify the remake.

Better sets and better costumes that introduced moody lighting and did away with the famous tights. New interpretations of old characters that gave them a bit more to do than be candles to Robin’s star. Realistic styles of warfare involving a great deal of blood and screaming. A hook that announces to the audience that this is not the same old stuff that you saw in your childhood.

By that same token, however, the charm of The Adventures of Robin Hood is that it is precisely that movie you saw in your childhood… and loved very much. The sets seem made out of play dough; the costumes are hilarious; the fighting is choreographed like a slightly less graceful ballet; the story is a wafer thin concoction of action scenes culled from lore; and any true unpleasantness like blood and death are presented in a way calculated to preserve the innocence and sensibilities of the infants of an era past wherein incredible amounts of mindless, desensitizing violence wasn’t the cultural norm. And yet, it is a benchmark because, quite simply, it is fun.

I’ve lost count of how often I saw this movie as a child, or even as an adult because I never missed it if it was on TV, but it has been a few years now and this is the first time I’m writing about it. That brings the realization that my idea of what it means to be A Hero has been indelibly shaped by Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood.

“He’s brave and he’s reckless,” gushes Maid Marian (the very lovely Olivia de Havilland) to her nurse (the very funny Una O’Connor). “And yet, he’s gentle and kind, not brutal…”

Flynn’s Robin is indeed all these things and more besides. In fact, my deeply held belief that true heroes are wonderful men who must be a phenomenal pain to know in person stems from his portrayal of Robin in this movie. Childish me thought him exceedingly romantic – grown up, stodgy me doesn’t grudge poor Marian a lifetime of following in the wake of the fires he’s bound to start because he thought the night called for some warmth and by building the biggest bonfire he could, he’d have some fun and something pretty to look at besides. But the magic of Flynn’s Robin is that despite knowing all this, you still either want him or want to be him.

His hot-headed nobility would be insufferable if it weren’t for his humor and obvious intelligence. Of course, it helps that Flynn is also the personification of male beauty at his very prime, with a truly excellent pair of legs he puts to good use during intensely acrobatic fights that require him to run, jump, and swing around like a monkey. And then there is that cocky little grin doing a lot more damage than any of the arrows he lets loose in the movie.

Helping him along is his chemistry with co-star de Havilland. Unlike the majority of versions, in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Maid Marian is not the childhood sweetheart of Robin of Locksley. She is instead a snooty Norman ward of the King of England, very much a partisan in the on-going ethnic strife between Saxons and Normans, and doesn’t care all that much for Robin at first sight, pretty face or not.

You can’t really blame her: Robin has a taste for mouthing off to royalty in the guise of the villainous Prince John (Claude Rains), appears at parties with the carcasses of forbidden game that he dumps on the main table, a habit of jumping up on tables where food is being served, his friends are a ragtag bunch of extremely common commoners, and his main occupation is running around shooting or robbing her friends, especially her would-be beau Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone). Hardly endearing behavior.

Once she adopts his cause, however, Marian is anything but a wilting flower. She gently nudges him back to the path of duty when he starts dreaming of a countryside idyll with her by his side, and plots his escape when he inevitably gets into trouble through his reckless actions. She is also the one who puts her life in danger to send him word of King Richard the Lion-Heart (Ian Hunter), who has returned to England after escaping his captors.

And in the midst of all the things that are going on – kings to be restored to thrones, villains to be defeated, fair maidens to be rescued, a kingdom to be freed from the greed of a racist tyrant – The Adventures of Robin Hood even takes a moment to comment on current affairs circa 1938. The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, you’ll be happy to know, were decidedly non-interventionist. Oh, irony.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of those rare movies that delivers exactly what it says in the title: Adventure with a capital A. If you somehow passed your childhood without access to its magic, you need to rectify it today!

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Rare Rat

Sammy Davis Jr. was always my favorite of member of the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra was way too capo di tutti capi-ish, Dean Martin’s good-humored alcoholic act makes me impatient, Peter Lawford creeps me out, and Joey Bishop… I’ll tell you what I think of him as soon as I remember who that is, poor man.

Sammy Davis, however, is my idea of an icon.

But one thing they all really did get right was style. Everything the original Ocean’s 11 lacked in terms of cinema, it almost made up with its stars. Here are some previously unpublished photographs from that era, courtesy Life. I do not understand why they were never published because the four of them featured here look way more yumsicle than I have previously seen them pictured.

If you had to click over to just one site today, make it this one.

[via ONTD]

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Life

 

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Aisha: St. Mean Girl

<i>Aisha</i>: St. Mean Girl

“Are you trying to say I’m manipulative?” an easily outraged Aisha asks early on in the movie. And the answer would have to be No, because manipulation requires you to think at least a little about other people.

An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma directed by Rajshree Ojha, Aisha has a problem – it is a movie populated by a bunch of interesting actors who effortlessly outshine the titular lead.

First, a note about Emma: it is not my favorite Austen novel. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I have conflicted feelings about it. It’s right up there with the best of Austen’s work and Knightley is second only to Darcy in terms of my favorite Austen heroes, but it is also the story of a deeply unlikable central character. Emma is an officious little twit and seldom have I wanted to smack somebody upside the head  as much as her.

Everybody mentions Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless when talking of the cinematic adaptations of this novel, but I personally think the version starring Gwyneth Paltrow was a lot more true to the spirit of the tale because The Goopster is pretty much the embodiment of the kind of charmingly beautiful horror I always imagined Emma to be. Silverstone is too warm to be entirely the Emma of the novel, just as Romola Garai is too sensitive in the BBC adaptation that came out last year. Oddly enough, Aisha could have done with some of that warmth and charm but Sonam Kapoor comes up low on supplies of both.

The only thing that made me think vaguely charitable thoughts about Emma, is when I saw her as a victim of her circumstances – she’s obviously smart, capable and well-off; if only her society permitted her to do something other than be a lady, she might have been more bearable.

Aisha (Sonam Kapoor) does live in a time and place where she can be something in addition to a lady – she simply chooses not to be anything else. She gardens, she bakes, she shops, she goes to events, she wears clothes, she throws lunches and dinner parties for her family and friends, and when she feels like doing something more, she dabbles in art.

Which is fine. What is not fine, is the way she sulks around this great life. She’s the world’s tallest toddler, throwing weddings for her dolls in this giant doll house called Delhi that God and Daddy have created for her entertainment, turning petulant and aghast when people refuse to fall in line with her plans for them.

Yeah. Fucking Emma. She reminds me a little too much of the person I try very hard not to be. :mrgreen:

Apart from the heroine, the true charm of the novel lies in the people around her and their reactions to her well-intentioned if ultimately disastrous meddling in their lives. I do not mean to go on comparing the two, so I will nip that habit in the bud right here but I will say that if you were hoping to see Aisha skewer upper class Delhi the way Austen always managed to needle her society, you will be disappointed. But as nothing about this movie suggests it intended to travel down that route, I barely missed it.

Aisha is instead a movie about one of the most inept mean girls who ever mean-girled and the people who love her in spite of it. Her attempts to ostracize Arti (Lisa Haydon), for example, a perceived rival who is everything Aisha could ever hope to be plus more, are embarrassingly childish. And not in an endearing way.

But the only person who bothers to consistently call Aisha out on her bullshit behavior is Arjun (Abhay Deol), her sister’s brother-in-law. He teases her, fights with her, takes care of her, rebukes her, and is the only person who treats her with honesty from the get-go rather than waiting to be pushed into it when her behavior gets beyond bearable.

If you haven’t already got Abhay Fever, this is a movie that might just infect you. There’s a lovely scene at a party during the course of which Aisha finds herself in the disconcerting position of a wallflower right in the middle of her natural milieu as Arjun’s attention turns to other women. The song is the amazing Behke Behke, the dance moves are Latin, and Arjun is moving around the floor, partnering with different women. And the first thing that popped into my head was, “Oh my God, he dances like a gentleman.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had that reaction to any man dancing before. The restraint, the genuine politeness that makes him ensure that everybody is having a good time, the manliness of his partnering skills, the subtly different way he held Aisha… ladies, it was a moment of true Regency etiquette come to life. Of all the characters, writer Devika Bhagat and Abhay really nailed George Knightley in Arjun.

Ahem. Yes. So… there are other people. Like Randhir (Cyrus Sahukar), the eligible young bachelor -cum- lovesick pile on who Aisha’s trying to unload on Shefali (Amria Puri), the downmarket dowdy she decides to transform into a princess – or a pale clone of herself, as Arjun points out with unkind perception.

Shefali is, in fact, the star of the enterprise. She starts out as a fairly easy to mock caricature of a behenji from Haryana, but by the time the credits roll you suspect she was a far more successful queen bee at her Hindi medium school than Aisha ever was at her tony public school, and those are skills that chickie is going to use to much better effect too.

There is also Pinky (Ira Dubey), Aisha’s quirky BFF, who is far less apologetic about who she is yet conversely more worried about what it means to be her. Aisha, who is possibly the most deaf a person can get without actually being deaf, is by turns dismissive, insensitive, and judgmental to the marvelous Pinky’s on-going crisis of confidence – and then shocked when Pinky has the mother of all blow-outs.

Aisha isn’t likely to blow you away, unless you count Amit Trivedi’s outstanding soundtrack, and even Paltrow at the height of her Ice Princess powers made you root for her more than Kapoor, but it’s one of the better attempts at froth this year, especially if you’re an Austen fan.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Die-For Duo

Die-For Duo

All pretenders kindly cease and desist. My favorite mystery couple will always be Madhubala and Ashok Kumar. Unlike other claimants like the baby-faced duo of Sadhana and Manoj Kumar, for example, who often exuded a slightly off-putting matched-set vibe, Ashok Kumar and Madhubala complemented each other.

He was rugged, gravelly voiced, tough, and alternated between a stern-faced authoritarian and a dashing man about town with a sense of humor. She was beautiful, full-figured, charming, and channeled  a mischievous sprite.  Together they were perfection.

Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my month of retina-scarring television, it’s that India loves its men strong and angry. Manly Men Be Aaaaangrryyyy! Rawr.

Much as I love to be contrary, that’s precisely why I love Ashok Kumar in this movie. Although he doesn’t star opposite Madhubala and younger brother Kishore walks around picking pieces of scenery from between his teeth when he’s not singing some of the most deliriously fun (and “inspired”) songs ever recorded for a Hindi film, Ashok is a big reason why I watch this movie over and over and over again.

The stern exterior hiding the battered heart, the marshmallow center of a hard candy – AIEEEEEE! If you’re lucky enough to find a clear(ish) print of this movie, you can gaze at his un-pretty but oh-so-charismatic visage and sigh that you’ll never find a man today who can bark out orders and forbid his brothers from associating with an entire gender the way he does.

What I seriously appreciate about his performance though is that he plays it straight. A lesser actor would have played the role for laughs and descended into caricature – something that happens distressingly often in a Hindi comedy where everyone is self consciously aware that they’re being !FuNnY! AK, on the other hand, let his brothers’ supreme hamming talents ricochet off his performance instead of trying to match them step for step. It’s a trick he would do in other movies, this metaphorical stepping back so that other more fiery stars could let the rockets fire out their bum while he quietly carried the scene in peace, but it’s never as perfect than in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi where all three of the Kumar brothers are so in tune.

In fact, given my druthers, I’d embed the whole movie here in lieu of a paltry clip or two. Although, I can’t imagine the madness that must have been the Ganguly household growing up.

Howrah Bridge (1958)

I have no idea why this movie gets so little love while Shakti Samanta’s other weepfests like Amanush and Amar Prem are still obsessed over. From the mid-60s on, Samanta was looking towards Europe but in his early days he had a bit of an Oriental fetish which you can see in movies like Howrah Bridge, Singapore and (the proto-Don) China Town.

Following the trajectory of Samanta’s less celebrated works, Howrah Bridge is a murder mystery featuring a stolen heirloom, shot in the noir style that (I assume) was then all the rage. It features Madhubala as a thoroughly believable femme-fatale-who-really-isn’t, Helen as the famous Ms. Chin Chin Choo, Madan Puri with slanted eye make-up, K.N. Singh as a sinister evildoer you can’t take your eyes off, and Ashok Kumar as the dashing out-of-towner with a game of his own to play.

This movie also brings up the question: was Ashok Kumar the last Indian actor who could wear a dinner jacket like he meant it? Some men can just wear it, you know? While most men look silly. And lordy, lordy, could AK wear it!

In conclusion: Look at them flirt! Well? What more do you need, cretin?

Mahal (1949)

I can’t remember the first time I saw Mahal, but I do remember that it scared the crap out of me. I was very young and the cable-wallah threw himself a little Scare Fest by showing us Bees Saal Baad (the one with Waheeda Rehman; he saved the Mithun Chakraborty one, which was scary for entirely different reasons, for a later date), the Rebecca-remake Kohraa, and Mahal.

I’ve never seen a quality print of this movie but, as you can imagine, any movie that saw the debut of Kamal Amrohi as director, gave Madhubala her first lead as an adult, and played a significant role in turning Lata Mangeshkar into a household name, is sufficiently awesome enough to battle crappy preservation and still shine through.

Although the camera faithfully follows AK’s extremely effective performance as a man faced with Very Weird Things that are totally destroying his mind, Madhubala left the greater impression on me. Not only because she was so amazingly lovely in this movie or because she managed to imbue a deep suspicion of all swings in me for a time, but because the big reveal was so incredible.

It was the first time I’d seen a true blue sociopath as a Hindi film heroine and they’re still pretty rare on the ground. And don’t tell me she wasn’t – girl be nuttier than a squirrel’s winter stash.

Ek Saal (1957)

The cutest ever. Seriously. This is a movie you watch curled up on your couch with the lights off, a big box of chocolates and a bottle of wine. The romance, the pretty, the Madhubala who is a light source on her own, the innocence of and the doomed struggle against true love, the heartbreak, the mocking AK who sings to the stricken AK as he realizes the value of what he’s lost, the penitence – I know it’s not technically a mystery but it’s all so satisfying!

Look at that poor sap on his flower-patterned couch. He actually thinks he has a chance! Ha! Ha, I say!

(And OMG, my mother totally has that necklace!)

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2010 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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Lekin…

Khanna-o-Rama has, justifiably, thus far been obsessed with Masala Vinod – the sneering, brooding, hunk of raw animal appeal that keeps its inner violence tethered on an excitingly thin leash. But those very qualities found him a niche in the world of a filmmaker leagues removed from the kind of cinema that set petticoats on fire.

As a director, multi-hyphenate Gulzar worked with Vinod Khanna in five movies: Parichay, Meera, Achanak, Mere Apne and Lekin. Each of them are fine movies but hardly ever get the attention reserved for the movies he made with Khanna’s contemporaries – Jeetendra (whom he directed three times – Parichay, Kinara, Khushboo), and the man most consider to be Gulzar’s true blue-eyed boy, Sanjeev Kumar (in Koshish, Namkeen, Parichay, Mausam, Aandhi, Angoor). Given that, I should perhaps have chosen to write about the only movie in which he cast all three – Parichay. It is a fine example of the wonders casting to strength can achieve in filmmaking.

I choose instead a movie that has long fascinated me – Lekin... (But…)

Produced by Lata Mangeshkar and featuring an outstanding soundtrack composed by her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar, Lekin… begins with the arrival of Sameer (Vinod Khanna), come to Rajasthan to take inventory of a long abandoned haveli. Once there, he bumps into the hauntingly beautiful Reva (Dimple Kapadia), a mysterious woman from the desert who wanders in and out of his life at will.

A friendship of sorts grows between the two, Sameer’s curiosity about Reva fitting into her odd desperation to share her story with him; their interactions with each other escalating by degrees to an emotional point as baffling to the audience as it is to Sameer. Shocked at his rapidly deteriorating mental and physical appearance as he is sucked into Reva’s hallucinatory world, Sameer’s friends (who include Amjad Khan) convince him to solve Reva’s mystery before it consumes him.

It’s a story packed full of drama featuring villainous rajahs, beautiful dancing girls (Hema Malini), heroic father figures, helpless damsels, heaping amounts of depravity and evil – and yet delicately told, its entire structure balanced on the atmosphere built by Manmohan Singh’s desert cinematography.

The lonely sand dunes, windswept and barren, are a setting made to appeal to the supernatural. Few in Hindi cinema can beat Gulzar’s record as writer of the female spirit who is as haunted as she is haunting. Although Reva draws immediate comparisons to that other Dimple Kapadia-starrer Rudaali (also written by Gulzar), she is in fact a character he has visited time again in movies as diverse as Namkeen, Ijazzat, Khushboo and Mausam to name just a few off the top of my head.

It is the character of a woman stuck in a specific window of her history, unable to unchain herself, seeking her freedom through the love of a man. She is an odd sort of succubus, sympathetic while being poisonous to varying degrees; she is only terrible in the way a drowning victim can be – she means you no active harm, just obeying her survival instincts.

In Reva, Gulzar makes the metaphor literal by making her a restless spirit who needs to have her story heard so that she can finally “cross the desert”. Sameer, more than half in love with her and fully cognizant that his is a love that was doomed before it ever began, is the man who pours his soul into guiding her in the right direction.

The best part of Lekin… for me is that I don’t think I can explain it beyond this point. For a movie that has all the ingredients of the kind of Rajasthan-based masala potboilers that were all the rage in the 1980s, Lekin… is satisfyingly ethereal and personal. There are loose ends and lyrics and panoramas that defy a standard reading.

If Gulzar hadn’t chosen to close the movie as he did, in fact, I would have been perfectly content with the interpretation that Sameer had a psychotic episode of some kind.

Papa Khanna continued and, indeed, continues to be steadily employed but Lekin… gets my vote as the last great movie he made.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2010 in Celebrity, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

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