My, what big ears you have, 2010! All the better to let all that awful Bollywood music escape, I bet.
Maybe I’m showing my age but this was the year when my head actively hurt almost everytime I loaded up a new soundtrack. I live across the road from a school with a marching band that insists upon practicing right under my window and at one point, I swear to God, I switched off the latest round of cacophony (Action Replayy, I think?) and basked in the blissful sound of an off-key tuba huffing along to an enthusiastic-if-sadly-untalented drum.
The good ones, therefore, were all the sweeter when they showed up. Here’re my favorite tracks from 2010. As with all lists, they’re highly subjective and I imposed a limit of one track per album because there were entire soundtracks that I would have happily included.
But first, these are the albums that missed the cut but took it easy on my ears all the same. In no particular order:
Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey
Karthik Calling Karthik
Madholal Keep Walking
Tera Kya Hoga Johnny
Jhootha Hi Sahi
10. Kya Hawa Kya Badal (Allah ke Banday) – Look, I would have found some way to include some mention of an album that features a track by the amazingness known as Ishq Bector (go on, click that link! You know you want to!). But I’m helped by this song.
09. Kanha (Veer) – The only good thing about Salman Khan’s golden barbarian fixation is this song. Intentionally, anyway. *snicker*
08. Des Mera (Peepli Live) – I’ve loved Indian Ocean since I was a kid so I’ll admit I was inclined to be kind but the best part about an album like this is that it doesn’t need your pity vote. It can stand up for itself, thanks.
07. Tujhe Bhula Diya (Anjaana Anjaani) – The best part of this song is Shruti Pathak’s bit at the beginning but Mohit Chauhan and Shekhar aren’t exactly slouches either. The movie might have left me cold, but the music was pretty great.
06. Ranjha Ranjha (Raavan) – My self-imposed limit of one track per album might keep me from giving Ab Mujhe Koi the love it deserves, but I thought this song was outstanding the moment I heard it and it was sheer poetry on screen.
05. Tera Zikr Hai (Guzaarish) – The star by far, as far as I’m concerned, in an album that’s a bit overproduced and labored, but quite lovely. Like everything else Sanjay Leela Bhansali does, I guess.
04. Lehrein (Aisha) – Honestly, I could have picked any song from this movie. Especially Sham, which is still on a loop on certain days. Amit Trivedi is on fire right now and long may it continue.
03. Cham Cham (Striker) – God only knows what happened to Sonu Nigam but here’s a track to remind you that he wasn’t always a greasy-haired fountain of bitter who judged reality shows. Somewhere, deep inside that mop, is an immensely talented voice.
02. Madhno Re (Lamhaa) – It’s like they asked me what I liked the most and then composed it to order. Mogambo khush hua!
01. Dil to Bachcha Hai Ji (Ishqiya) – How much do I love this song? Everything from Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice to his enunciation of the amazing lyrics to the string bits in the middle. I could listen to this all day and never tire.
Dear Movie, we have got to break up. Wake up Sid, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Anjaana Anjaani, I Hate Luv Storys, Bachna Ae Haseeno… and now Break ke Baad, directed by Danish Aslam. The title of which made me laugh because we’ve essentially been watching the same movie starring Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan in turn, over and over and over again.
If I see one more middling movie about a likable pair of youngsters (the male confused yet ultimately correct; the female focused yet ultimately proven wrong) who stumble around in the dark before finding each other without too much fuss… well, I guess I will be well-rested because I’ll just turn over and go back to sleep. It’s not like I’ll lose my temper because that would be an actual reaction which is more than these things aim for.
[Digression 1: That’s not strictly true. The first couple of times I saw this plot, viz. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and Wake Up Sid as well as parts of Bachna Ae Haseeno, I was interested. With each subsequent installment, I quickly got over it.]
I’ve been wondering why this is, this utter lack of any response other than a shrug and a meh. Was it the careful result of much planning on the filmmakers’ part – did they deliver the innocuous movie they set out to make? Or was it inadvertent – an attempt to speak Gen Now gone terribly boring?
It finally struck me as I was watching Break ke Baad that (as a member of Gen 10 Minutes Past) the problem appears to be the romance. On their own, as angsty young people, all these movies feature interesting characters.
In Break ke Baad, for example, Abhay Gulati (Imran Khan) is that guy from college who kind of coasted along, uninterested in reaching for anything because he knew his (extremely unvillainous, terribly nice and supportive) father had an office all ready for him at home. And then once he got into that office, it began to pinch because he was like a balloon filled to bursting with all these half-formulated ideas and desires that had never been expressed because he hadn’t even tried to put them into words before. And yet, nothing short of a life-changing event can knock him out of his stupor and into experimenting a little with his idea of self.
Aaliya Khan (Deepika Padukone) is that girl you’re friends with because life is always so much more entertaining when she’s around to fuck things up. Your boyfriend hates her and thinks she’s a terrible influence on you, your other friends wonder what you see in her, and you shrug them off because your friendship is inexplicably based on giggly minutes spent fixing your makeup after throwing up in the restroom of a club or convincing a bartender to slip you free drinks. Everyone else got you really nice, safe, thoughtful gifts of books and knickknacks for your birthday but hers is the one you’ll always treasure – she made it herself, it serves absolutely no purpose (not even decorative because it’s fucking hideous), and is absolutely perfect to remember her by because you know and she knows that once these brief, few years are over, you’ll probably never meet her again although you’ll never forget her.
The difference between these two characters is that when they get to the big screen, Abhay is still sympathetic enough to be portrayed as he is while Aaliya turns into this monstrous vampire that feeds off the emotional energy of other people. In other words, you’ll see those exact scenes in Abhay’s portions of the movie, while the Aaliya I described above is crammed into a few scenes of pottery in a sunny courtyard and drunken revelry in inappropriate places. Even so, there’s a sense of drama lurking under the surface in her interactions with her mother, her frequent references to her adulterous absentee father, her determination to hack her own path and give no quarter.
[Digression 2: Aslam joins his long line of fellow debutant directors in making a movie in which the parent-child relationship comes off as much more genuine and heartfelt. A trend that first came to my attention in Wake Up Sid.]
Drama. Which brings us back to my big problem with movies like Break ke Baad – these are the most comatose romances I’ve ever seen in my life. I appreciate that they’re trying to set a tone that isn’t as hysterical as your classic Bollywood romance can be, with cruel parents and promises to die with sweeping background music. But as much as things have changed, falling in love is same old hysterical business, I’m afraid. Lovers are still fighting over trifles, irritating and boring their friends in turn by assuring them that none of them know the true meaning of love, bursting into storms of tears and accusations and other sappy stuff.
Compare that to movies like Anjaana Anjaani, which turned even the concept of suicide for love’s sake into a drawn out yawn. I know a real life version of that story and it is so much more entertaining. Meanwhile, people in these movies are so articulate, so soft-spoken, so polite I imagine their sex life consists of strenuous cuddling. In Break ke Baad, when Aaliya flips out at Abhay in the midst of the most uneventful beach rave Australia has ever hosted, the best she can do is grit out that she’s on a break in a half-raised growl before throwing the phone on the soft sand of the beach. I mean, she doesn’t even destroy her phone! What kind of tantrum is that for a capricious, self-obsessed creative? And yet, not a single character in the movie misses an opportunity to inform us that Aaliya is indeed all those things.
[Digression 3: Apart from Dev D, which is really a beast of a different sort, and perhaps a bit of Jaane Tu… how come all these cool, hip young folk go to the most boring parties where nothing ever happens? No brawls, no skeevy middle-aged men scoping out the latest batch of teenage girls, no catfight in the restroom, no puddles of vomit in random corners, no idiot adolescent tripping out for the first time and nearly killing him/herself, no cops who’ve totally been paid off, no sleazy waiters who know all the shady gossip about all the patrons, no drug peddling kingpins recruiting fresh customers… Aaliya would have found much better parties in her hometown of Delhi instead of going all the way to Australia to play with a surfboard.]
I sat there, one part of my brain watching Break ke Baad while the other ran through all the lovelife drama I’ve witnessed over the past year alone and no contest – every one of my friends had a more eventful, drama-filled story to tell. And this includes the ones that aren’t even in a relationship! Hmmm. Maybe I need new friends! 😛
Having said all that, if there are young kids out there who’re watching these movies and coming away with the lesson that it pays to treat each other with respect (which, to give these movies their due, is a statement they eventually deliver) in a relationship, I couldn’t be happier. I’d rather watch a million versions of Break Ke Baad than a single Kambakkht Ishq.
Everything that’s wrong with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie-making is evident in the opening scene of Guzaarish: Sophia (a deliciously zaftig Aishwarya with heavily painted face, wearing some Victorian granny’s trousseau) carefully wakes and takes care of quadriplegic Ethan (Hrithik, in the one avatar left out in Kites: Jesus on the cross). It’s a great scene – or it would have been if we didn’t have Dominique Cerejo singing Smile in the background, reminding us that sadness lurks just beneath the artfully bleached surface.
Everything that’s right with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie-making can be seen in the song Udi by Sunidhi Chauhan: the normally contained Sophia takes Ethan out on the town to celebrate a rare outing and throws off her inhibitions to do it. Ethan is a man who likes to make jokes about all the sex he isn’t getting (among all the other things he can’t do any more) and needle Sophia in the process if he can; Sophia is a woman who keeps tight control of her feelings, quicker to scold than coddle. They’re surrounded by people as she taps along to the rhythm, strums an air guitar, and occasionally breaks into dazzlingly graceful steps – he never takes his eyes off her for a second and she meets them at the end of her uncharacteristic performance, making it absolutely clear that it was all for him.
It’s a searingly intimate moment for these two people. Sophia who knows every inch and working detail of his body, and Ethan who will never see more of her than what she allows him. Some movies can’t evoke that sense of amour even by making the actors take their clothes off.
And that to me is Guzaarish‘s big problem: it’s half a great movie. Because it’s made by that most tragic of beings, half a great film maker.
Personally speaking, here was a subject that pushed my buttons. It’s partly because euthanasia is a topic close to my heart for a number of reasons, not least of which is family history. But also because it addresses my greatest fear: a loss of control.
There is a scene in which Ethan proves a point to the cartoonishly unsympathetic prosecutor (Rajat Kapoor) by locking him up in a box. “I couldn’t move at all!” says the indignant lawyer, gulping in deep breaths. Well, sure. But the bigger issue was that for those terrifying 60 seconds, he was absolutely powerless.
The most vile crimes in our world are when man forcibly exerts control over his fellow man. Torture, rape, murder, home invasions, kidnappings… to find yourself at the mercy of a fellow human being, to have your agency stripped away from you, is grotesque. Ethan, of course, is not victimized by those around him – but the results of their good intentions are the same. And his life is a series of confrontations where he is forced to accept his helplessness. Tell me that doesn’t sound like a nightmare.
A less sentimental filmmaker would have let Ethan’s tragedies speak for themselves: his empty threats that turn to pleading, his fantasies of feeling the surf rush through his elegant feet, the dreams in which he soars on beams of light, the easiness with which people grant or withhold his desires, the way he’s repeatedly urged to remember what his life means to others as though that’s the reason for his existence.
These are not experiences that need particular emphasis or gilding. You’d have to be an unimaginative, insensitive moron if you can sit through a scene in which a doctor (Suhel Seth) threatens to declare his perfectly rational quadriplegic patient mentally unsound if he explores all his legal options and fail to be enraged with an overwhelming sense of WTF.
But storytelling, in all its forms, requires a certain amount of manipulation. You need to take your audience with you. Bhansali, ironically for a man who made a paean to the right to make your own decisions, is hell-bent on dragging you by the arm to a foregone conclusion.
He manages to sneak in a couple of renditions of What a Wonderful World – one by Marianne D’Cruz for a picture-perfect Nafisa Ali and one by Hrithik himself – and underscores Ethan’s utter helplessness with the help of a leaky roof and (a hilariously out-of-place) Makrand Deshpande among other things. He even throws in a languidly morose ex-girlfriend (Monikangana Dutt) who apparently lives in a mausoleum sans furniture and repentant nemesis (Ash Chandler). Worst of all is his protege Omar (Aditya Roy Kapur, lately of Action Replayy), an imbecile wrapped in a hideous pink bow – I kept hoping Sophia would take a knife to him some dark and stormy night but she never did, alas.
More mystifyingly, after making a huge hue and cry about how absolutely everybody is against his decision, the movie is at great pains to show public opinion careening on to Ethan’s side, complete with banners and slogans. “Good luck, Ethan!” smiles a reporter on TV as the judge prepares to deliver his verdict. I mean, I’m sure he appreciated it, but… you know? A little tact, lady.
When Guzaarish fires, though, it’s the hands-down weepie of the year. “I can’t live without you,” a battered Sophia tells a sulky Ethan. It’s one of those things people say when they fall in love. And then she offers him a way out, because when you love somebody so much that you can’t live without them, you do things for them you would never dream of doing for anyone else.
PS: Because I simply couldn’t resist – here is Robert Downey Jr. (who played the lead in Chaplin) singing Smile.
Q. What is Action Replay?
A. British for “instant replay”; mostly used in the context of sports.
Q. No, no, the movie starring Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai.
A. Oh, you mean Action Replayy.
Q. Yes, excuse me: Action Replayy. Does that extra Y mean something?
A. They can’t spell?
Q. You’re going to be difficult about this, aren’t you? I can tell already.
A. Sorry. Action Replayy is a movie directed by Vipul Amrutlal Shah (Namastey London, London Dreams) about Bunty (Aditya Roy Kapur), a commitment-phobe, who hops a ride back in time to fix his parents’ non-existent love story so they don’t end up unhappily married years later.
Q. And this takes place in London?
A. No, Mumbai.
Q. Oh. Well, that sounds sweet.
Q. Come on! The kid wants to save his parents’ marriage!
A. Right after he said he doesn’t believe in the institution and wished that his parents had never got together. Not that I blame him. If you had two miserable people like Kishen (Akshay Kumar) and Mala (Aishwarya Rai) as the shining example of the institution in front of you, you wouldn’t be all that eager either.
Q. Why do they hate each other?
A. She’s a bitch and he’s a loser.
A. Fine. She wanted him to pay attention to her but he was too busy with his work, so she tried to fill in the emptiness by buying things. A lot of things. About 9 crore plus change worth of things that must be extremely dodgy going by one example he carries around in the car with him. As for him, he thinks she’s always hated him and never wanted to marry him, might even have been in love with another man, except they were forced into marriage by their parents.
Q. That’s terrible.
A. Right. But! Conveniently for Bunty, his girlfriend’s grandfather Anthony Gonsalves (Randhir Kapoor) just built a time machine in their drawing room –
Q. Excuse me?
A. Built a time machine in his drawing room. At least, I think it’s his drawing room. I’m pretty sure I noticed a table lamp. Don’t worry, though, it’s not important – it’s one of those science-y things that you note in the “Oh Yeah, And This Happened. Continuity!” column. So he hijacks the thing and runs off into the sky with it and lands in Bombay 30 years ago. Where he finds out the awful truth about his parents.
Q. Which is?
A. She’s a bitch and he’s a loser.
A. It’s true! She’s the terror of the neighborhood because she has no father and she’s trying to be the man of the house while he’s the neighborhood punching bag because he has no mother and he’s trying to be the woman of the house.
Q. Is this funny?
A. Occasionally? It’s the monstrous love child of that other movie made by illiterates, Singh is Kinng, and one of the director’s earlier efforts, Waqt: The Race Against Time, except this one is more of a movie rather than a collection of comedy skits and doesn’t have extended death scenes surrounded by plush toys. It must have helped to have Back to the Future as their Plot Guide for Dummiez. Also, they swapped in The Original Salman Girlfriend instead of The Girlfriend Doll, so she comes equipped with extra features like Be Convincingly Mean and Dance in a Variety of Styles. Thus Mala is both in spades: truly unpleasant and very hot. And there are weird scenes in which Bunty, the son, encourages his future father to think of his future mother as a potential hate-fuck.
Q. Sounds like an interesting movie.
A. It has its moments and most of them are unintentional.
Q. But you’re not offended by it.
A. I suspect I would have been if it wasn’t a variation on a very well worn theme: For True Happiness in the Indian Home, A Woman Needs to Know Her Place and A Man is the Only One Who Can Show It to Her. I mean, Mala+Kishen v.1.0 might have been textbook examples right out of Psychology 101 but there was a sense of real drama there, which just got reduced to Bollywood Characterization 101 via time travel. At a certain point, you just shrug and move on.
Q. Blah blah blah. Does it bring the pretty?
A. Sure. Well, Aishwarya does. The way she does.
If they’d kept the original title of the show – Keep Hope Alive – I would have known immediately that Raising Hope is my kind of show. As it was, it took me a little while to get around to watching this sitcom from Greg Garcia (My Name is Earl) about a clueless young man battling the odds to raise his little baby girl.
The Chances, Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) have big dreams: lots of money, yachts, fancy fixtures, rich people’s toys. Someday they’re going to live in an enormous mansion with a pool. In the meantime, however, while waiting for that lottery to chime in the happy times, they clean enormous mansions and pools for a living wage. And they live with Virginia’s grandmother, known as Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), whose dementia prevents her from kicking them all out of her home, which they’ve sort of unofficially occupied for years now.
Burt and Virginia have a son Jimmy (Lucas Neff), born when they were both in their teens, and one day in the middle of cleaning a pool, he has an epiphany. Which leads, in turn, to a fateful rescue mission where he saves a pretty young girl from an older man. Her name is Lucy (Bijou Phillips) and they promptly have mad, unprotected sex in the backseat of his gross van. Things are great! For a moment it looks like Jimmy was right – his life is meant for better things than cleaning a pool. Too bad Lucy’s a mad serial killer.
However, her execution next year leaves a surprise for him: Princess Beyonce, his daughter. Everyone advises him to give the baby up for adoption but Jimmy is adamant. He’s going to raise Princess Beyonce Hope himself. Well, himself with the help of his parents, his friends and whoever else he can rope into it.
Like that really cute, quirky girl Sabrina (Shannon Woodward) who works at the local supermarket while writing stories full of words he hasn’t ever heard before. She might have a boyfriend, a college boy whose father’s pool the Chances clean, and Jimmy did once date her cousin, the girl with one dead tooth, but hey! Things can happen, right?
In the wrong hands, Raising Hope could have dwindled into one long “Ha Ha, Look at These Fucking Ignorant Poor People” joke. Thankfully, it’s a long way from that. It is, however, a show that isn’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable subjects with the lightest of touches.
For instance, serial killer Lucy chooses to have Princess Beyonce because she’s pro-life – not the baby’s but her own. Since she’s pregnant, her execution is delayed till Hope is 6 months old. “Don’t worry, they’ll never execute the mother of a 6 month old baby,” she assures Jimmy. Oh, but they will. Sanctity of life only extends thus far and no further, you see.
Similarly, you see the family making choices – daycare for Hope or smokes for Grandma Virginia? – that seem tiny and ridiculous unless you’ve actually lived the experience of existing paycheck to paycheck. And that still doesn’t stop it from being hilarious. It’s also proved capable of handling the tricky subject of teen parenting, specifically its aftermath, as Virginia and Burt explain their horrifyingly bad decisions to their grown up son who is now a father himself.
The real heart of the show, as far as I’m concerned, are the moments in which Jimmy learns compassion and forgives his parents one bizarre action at a time as he slowly becomes more and more of a real father rather than a kid who decided fatherhood was his new mission in life. Martha Plimpton, in particular, just kills those scenes as she takes Jimmy’s childhood memories and reintroduces them to him in a newly adult context.
Baby Hope is cute but really just incidental to the whole process of what goes into raising a family.
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 REP – Retired 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.
Here’s a sentence I type less and less often as the years go by: I was truly excited to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s new movie. A fictional account of the blood-soaked real life of Andhra Pradesh politician Paritala Ravi, Rakht Charitra sounded interesting and right up RGV’s alley. Gore, politics, revenge, it had to be a knock out of the RGV park.
Well, I don’t know which angel RGV decided to piss off by taking a dump in its bed, but Rakht Charitra is terrible. Not in a lights come on and you look over at your date and immediately apologize for picking this movie of all the tens available kind of way, but in a shoulders slumped in defeat as you slowly huddle into your miserable seat and sadly shake your head way.
Rakht Charitra is an orgy of all the hacky bits of filmmaking that have become the RGV hallmark of late, from mysterious/dizzying camera angles to boomingly obvious background scores to attention-destroying close ups of every other actor’s nostrils… now with the added benefit of the worst narrator ever employed by a movie. Bar none. His one direction seems to have been: “Pretend every word you speak is a breech baby to which you’re giving birth.”
And what words they are! After introducing us to the town of Anandpur, the kind of skeevy, dusty, violence-strewn place that we’ve now come to expect of our rural interiors at the cinema, our narrator helpfully informs us in his over-enunciated, weirdly accented manner that blood is the accepted way to settle things here – especially when it’s a matter of ego, women or privilege. And therefore, he continues, the history of Anandpur is a history of blood. A rakht charitra in fact! So clever.
Apparently RGV only expected idiots to come watch his movie (and yes, I feel like one now, thanks for asking!) because this distressing pattern doesn’t end after the introduction. Instead, the narrator regularly puts in an appearance to thunderously explain a scene, after which you see the scene take place.
“The snake is coming out of his lair!” – the villain is about to leave his house.
“She didn’t know this then but he had set out on a long journey.” – and our hero hops on a scooter and rushes off to his faraway, troubled homeland.
“His ego was hurt by X event so he asked his assistant who was behind this deed.” – three guesses what happens next.
The sad part about all of this, the reason I’m so viciously disappointed, is because there’s actually a good movie hidden somewhere in the middle of this mess, performed by actors who’re pretty good at their jobs.
I feel especially bad for Vivek Oberoi, a man on the Ben Affleck road to redemption, who turns in a what I suspect was a fine performance if only I could penetrate that cacophony of tricks RGV unloads on top of it. There was his (unintentionally) hilarious entry scene, for instance, wherein he exudes menace, riding a Bajaj scooter and opening the unoffending gate of a suburban house in a nice neighborhood so he can ask for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage. The one standout scene, before it succumbed to the everpresent trowel-full of obvious ham, comes late into the film when he stands before the pawn he’s just utilized to his best advantage, standing bathed in the golden glow of the sun, a well-barbered young man in shining white, all the better to appeal to public opinion.
I try really hard to go with the movie presented in front of me, rather than the movie I think ought to exist in its place, but every so often I come across one that is the equivalent of an old friend who greets me by slapping a dead fish in my face. It gets rather difficult to look past the fish to the friend standing beyond. I honestly feel RGV is a man with a lot of interesting, creative ideas who, in the wise words of Tim Gunn, doesn’t know how to edit. So he just sticks everything in there.
Anysmellydeadfish, the movie begins with an easily manipulated politician called Narasimha Reddy whose righteous friendship with his lower caste protege Veer Bhadra lasts all of two watered-down Scotches after it is given the evil eye by a painfully obvious manipulator called Nagamani Reddy (Kota Srinivasa Rao). The fallout results in a simmering caste war that promises to play out at the local elections, threatening to unseat the Reddys from their power base. Nagamani, with Narasimha’s blessing, then takes his grudge just that teensy envelope-pushing bit too far and assassinates Veer Bhadra.
His mantle of idealism thus falls on elder son Shankar (Sushant Singh), who carries it with grief, pride and a healthy dose of guerrilla warfare. This obviously gets him murdered in short order as well, leaving just Pratap (Vivek Oberoi) to carry out the family mission: kill all those who wronged their family and, time and energy permitting, society as a whole.
Unfortunately, once Narasimha and Nagamani have been despatched, with a modicum of elan I might add, Pratap finds his troubles aren’t over. Now Pratap is a wanted terrorist and Nagamani has left behind his infamous son Bukka (Abhimanyu Singh), who “changed the definition of vile” the ever-knowledgeable narrator informs us over a montage of said Bukka being suitably changing the definition of vile. Sigh.
Happily for Pratap, Bukka is an equal opportunity son-of-a-bitch and has succeeded in pissing off Shivaji Rao (Shatrughan Sinha), a carpet-bagging movie star turned politician, whom he hilariously scares away from Anandpur with a few well placed bombs. Outraged that he, the man who regularly beat up entire armies single-handedly on the big screen, was forced to turn tail and run offscreen, Shivaji wants to know: “How can a demon like Bukka exist in a democracy?”
“What do you mean how?” asks his befuddled assistant. “He exists therefore he is.”
I chuckled far more heartily than this little sally deserved but at a certain point, you take your joy where you can get it.
Thus, Shivaji and Pratap join forces – Pratap’s no dummy after all, and he’s powerfully attracted to Shivaji, the most Machiavellian figure he’s ever met, and his amazing ideas like keeping Pratap out of jail by turning him into a politician so he can murder all he wants while staying above the law. Oh, Nagamani, if only you and your pitiful tumblers of Scotch were alive to watch and learn, abashed, the art of skillful manipulation from a man who prefers to stroke the heads of gold tigers than rapey sons.
As the problem of Bukka is solved, with more helpful exposition from the narrator, Pratap sets about his business, cleaning town and taking names. In between all this is an honest cop (Ashwini Kalsekar) who shows up to remind you that honesty never pays, especially in an RGV movie; and various wives, widows, sisters, hookers, pillion-riders, billboard models and girlfriends, all of them sad, desperate and sinned against, except for Nandini (Radhika Apte). Pratap’s college sweetheart turned wife, she is the sort of fool who calmly listens to her beloved telling her he’s indeed a much-discussed murderer who plans to murder again and decides that’s just what she’s looking for in the father of her children. Off she goes to walk silently by his side in the forest and give meaningful looks in the background. She’ll get hers, I guess.
In the sequel! Wherein Pratap will be presented with his butcher’s bill. But apart from the little “scenes from our next movie” they tacked on to the end of this one, I have no idea what that will look like because here’s a sentence I will never use again: I am truly excited to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s new movie.
All I want this weekend is some charmth to warm my soul. And few actors are as charming as Audrey Hepburn, so she’s my preferred company today. Just familiar stuff, so I can wallow in the details without worrying about surprises and other nasty things. Plus, she must hold some kind of record for acting in the most number of movies set in Paris and I could definitely do with some Parisian romance this week.
A few favorites amongst some of her less-discussed movies:
1. How to Steal a Million
The movie that made me fall in love with Peter O’Toole despite my father’s best efforts to traumatize me as a child with repeated viewings of Lawrence of Arabia.
It’s really an amusing trifle but as a caper it hits just the right spot – O’Toole is adorable as the bemused would-be art thief shanghaied into helping a family of accomplished forgers thanks to the go-getter daughter of the house. It has the kind of 60s silliness that makes that whole era such fun: hi-tech gadgets and yummy fashion and amazing cars. And smoking hot chemistry that doesn’t require anyone to get naked.
Well, maybe a little naked but it takes place discreetly offscreen.
2. Robin and Marian
A look at the lives of glorious heroes long after the cheers have faded into memory, this m0vie was written by James Goldman who also wrote The Lion in Winter and They Might be Giants (all you Sherlock fans might want to check it out). For this reason alone, it has long been on my list but it took Flynn Week to bring it back up.
And it certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s not really “Robin Hood” except in name but works really well as a movie about young men who dedicate their lives to a higher cause, the young women they leave behind, and what happens when life catches up with them.
3. Two for the Road
I’ll never forget the very first time I saw this movie thanks to that one scene in which Audrey and Albert Finney discuss the silence of married people at restaurants. It’s the kind of writing that comes back to you at unexpected moments; the simple honesty of little things that you never quite analyze until someone points it out to you and then it remains bound to your memory of that person forever.
This is not the movie for you if you’re looking for the “classic” Audrey Hepburn experience with the wide eyes, the chic clothes and the ladylike language – you’d have to choose director Stanley Donen’s two other, more famous, collaborations with Audrey for that fix (Funny Face, Charade).
An examination of a couple’s marriage over a decade as they go on various road trips, I often wonder how it would have played if Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in it… and I mean that as a compliment.
4. Paris – When it Sizzles
Look at that trailer! Don’t you want to see it? It’s like this movie was made to make all writers of fanfic green with jealousy – will your insane (-ly sexy!) storylines ever be acted out by anyone even half as awesome as Audrey Hepburn and William Holden? I think not!
I have to say, analytically speaking, you end up wondering if this movie about a hard partyin’ screenwriter forced to submit the allegedly phenomenal script he’s been working on in gay Paree and the assistant he finds to help him crank it out in time was more of a docudrama than fiction. There’s a distinctly cobbled together feel to the whole enterprise. But who wants to speak analytically? It sounds like a painful medical condition! Talking about medical conditions, these two ought to do something about this fatal attraction their mouths have for each other.
5. Love in the Afternoon
This movie was an eye-roller even when it came out, but if you have a thing for Autumn-Spring romances – and much as it pains me, I must out myself here – then this absolutely charming. It’s not as sweet as Sabrina but Gary Cooper works much better than Humphrey Bogart.
And as hilarious (-ly sexist) as that whole “connoisseur of women” stuff sounds in the trailer, it’s even more funny in the movie as you watch Cooper drip charm in a tuxedo tailored for Cary Grant. But it kind of works too – you buy him as the great big, rough American millionaire who likes his dames with exotic accents. There’s a certain hard-living hint of sleaze about him that’s very unusual for roles of this kind. And Audrey is, of course, utterly delicious and extremely young.
There are people out there who need to medicate their obsessive selves. And then there are folks who manage to exert a bit of control over their compulsions – I choose to channel it into tight spirals of in-depth immersion to burn the subject down to manageable levels. Whenever this happens to me, which is more often than it ought, I describe it as having fallen into a wormhole and I hope to come out the other side.
My wormhole for the past week or so has been Mahesh Babu. It’s sort of mystifying – I saw Pokiri a while back and I was perfectly fine putting it out of my mind. Then I saw Athadu on Cinema Chaat’s recommendation and it was hello-madness-my-old-friend time again.
However, while the rules of the wormhole dictate that I must ceaselessly hunt down and devour every last bit of everything connected to the central subject, it does not demand I lobotomize myself in the process. In the present case of Mahesh Babu, for instance, I was perfectly able to understand that the man has oodles of that mysterious-yet-all-important It factor that marks a charismatic star, while recognizing that half the stuff I was watching (particularly the early movies although the fairly-recent, pseudo-scifi, pedotastic-by-inference, all around weird fantasy Naani co-starring Ameesha Patel was pretty terrible too) was almost irredeemably bad.
There’s Takkari Donga, for instance: apparently an homage to father Krishna’s groundbreaking portrayal of a cowboy in Telugu cinema, it stars Mahesh as a Wild West robber full of derring do who intentionally courts unnecessary trouble, hoping his notoriety would lead him to his father’s murder. In the process, he’s stalked by a skimpily-clad (at one point, completely unclad) Bipasha Basu and carts around a half-naked (at one point, completely naked… you get the picture) Lisa Ray who keeps trying to get his pants off so she can check if he’s The One she’s supposed to marry. There’s also a mine right out of an Indiana Jones movie where diamonds grow like crystals inside stalagmites and an adorable little puppy whom he heroically saves from certain death – I mean, I can’t recommend this movie enough except for the times when I’m strongly warning you against it.
So I was really happy to see Sainikudu. All your questions answered here:
Q. What is Sainikudu?
A. A Telugu movie starring Mahesh Babu. Duh.
Q. Okay, smarty pants. What’s it about?
A. In flood-ravaged Andhra Pradesh, government corruption is destroying the lives of the poor. So a group of university students, led by Siddhartha (Mahesh Babu) decide to do something about it.
Q. Oh dear. That kind of stuff never works out, does it?
A. For reals. They get framed as terrorists by evil villain Pappu Yadav (Irrfan Khan) and his brother-in-law Mondi Naani (Prakash Raj) when they try to field a student as a candidate against him in the upcoming elections.
Q. That’s a very not-nice thing to do.
A. It is a properly villainous thing to do! Especially when Pappu wins the election and ends up as the Home Minister.
Q. Set a thief to catch a thief, so to speak!
A. Right! Except he doesn’t want to catch any, he just wants to fix it so he doesn’t get caught! The students say nix to that and kidnap Pappu’s bride Varalakshmi (Trisha Krishnan) under his nose on their wedding day and hold her hostage in exchange for Pappu completing his election promises.
Q. How does that work out?
A. For Siddhartha? Probably better if Varalakshmi hadn’t been the bride. For the viewer? Fabulously! The way it does when the heroine isn’t just your random naive village belle – but a deeply romantic, naive village belle, convinced (rather understandably, if she watches Telugu blockbusters where such threats fly around like confetti) the world is full of rapists, and hilariously overconfident about her fighting-capabilities. I was prepared to find her completely annoying, but she was absolutely charming – even Siddhartha thought so and she was either trying to get him killed, lecturing him about her purity, or questioning his manhood.
Q. Good stuff!
A. You bet. And a lot of it depends on Mahesh’s ability to just be silent. There aren’t a lot of actors who can resist the impulse to “do something” (at the 7.00 mark) when the camera is on them, but he can. You could argue that it’s a lack of ability, but having seen his earlier movies, I think it’s a sign of evolution. He also goes a little darker in this movie, doing stuff that is distinctly un-hero-like (albeit in a dream), has what appears to be a drinking problem, and thinks nothing of using dead children as party table centerpieces. Very affecting! But then, I like my action stars strong, angry and silent, which is probably why I don’t much care for it when he starts singing and dancing.
Q. You didn’t like the music of Sainikudu?
A. This was actually an exception – I liked the soundtrack. In fact, I was thinking about it when reading Beth’s CurrySmugglers interview: it’s unusual for me to really love film music in a language I don’t understand because lyrics matter a great deal to me, but either Harris Jayraj’s score was really that good or else the subtitles managed to work well enough for me to like it. Probably a combination of the two.
Q. The subtitles were good?
A. Well, I’m sure I missed a great deal of the wordplay and stuff – in fact, I’m pretty sure I did because there were certain segues that were distinctly odd – but going by various comments around the net, I’m better off that way because the original seems to have really pissed people off.
Q. Why is that?
A. I dunno. Maybe they didn’t like the political bits? They seemed pretty dire in a recycled way. Or maybe there wasn’t enough of it? Who knows! Personally, I thought it flirted with the borderline where I was just able to restrain my fast-forward finger.
Q. But you still had a good time watching it?
A. A bowl of Maggi noodles (original Masala please – none of this “new and improved”, “healthy” jiggery pokery), a bottle of wine and this movie? Totally my Sunday.
Q. That’s disgusting.
A. Sez you. Viva la revolucion!
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.