Monday, December 21, 2015

On "Bajirao Mastani"

Princess Mastani, the eponymous heroine of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's latest, is extraordinary not just because she is beautiful (as played by Deepika Padukone, she looks like she might dissolve into sunlight and mist at any moment) or because she is a skilled warrior. Mastani is also fantastically cussed, a creature of shockingly little reason or sense. A brief flirtation with a Maratha general impels her to abandon her home and land up at his. She remains there in the face of insult and injury, degradation and ostracization, because she must have her Bajirao. And once she has him, Mastani makes him the locus of her existence, waiting for him, making love to him, bearing offspring for him, and eventually losing her child and her life for him. Padukone doesn't even blink when she looks at Singh; her splendid eyes are astar and a little deranged.

Bhansali has always romanticized (and eroticized) extreme submission. But the clever, brave, literate Mastani's self-effacement in the name of love is a dizzying new level in the sadomasochistic love games that often form the crux of his films. She's the Glenn Close character from Fatal Attraction, except Bhansali exalts her for her magnificent obsession instead of making her an object of derision. 

If you're the sort who expects characters in fiction and art to act in rational, constructive ways that best serve their own interests, Bajirao Mastani, Bhansali's retelling of an 18th-century noblewoman's love affair with an already married warrior-statesman, will annoy you as much as Bhansali's previous romantic dramas did. 

The principal characters in Bhansali's cinematic universe are all superego and id, sex drive and death drive, high passion and high dudgeon, and they, like their creator, do little by half-measures. I wrote in an earlier piece that a SLB love story, at least Devdas onward, is generally "a horror film of sorts. Love is both god and monster; and since there is no fleeing from it, the infuriating, fascinating victims in Bhansali's cavernous yet claustrophobic world run toward it, bloodied and crazed." 

Romantic love as sublime torture, as the thorn in your side (or, if we're being referential, in your foot) that you leave there till you are near-dead and orgasmic with the poison in your system, is not an easy or even pleasant notion to buy into, but Bhansali realizes this notion with such Quixotic mania in every aspect of his movies that I, for one, invariably find myself impressed, if not always moved. He is a true visionary, a filmmaker whose ambition is matched by an ability to hard-sell his worldview (perverse as it may seem to many) through the almost wracking beauty of his visuals and music and the dogged, unflagging thrust of his narrative toward the rousingly tragic. 

Bhansali's abiding interest has been viraha, the separation of lovers that is heavy with pain and an almost spiritual sort of longing. I was a little taken aback when I thought back on his oeuvre and realized that, despite the reputation his films have for the chemistry between their main leads, the lovers of his films spend very little time in each other's company. Kept apart by circumstances and wounded pride and intransigent families, they are, after the initial courtship, mostly shown pining for one another. The separation of the titular couple, less organic here than in Bhansali's other films (since she marries him and lives right across the hall, so to speak) might have become Bajirao Mastani's biggest downfall were it not for its lead actors. Singh and Padukone make so much heat and light out of the surprisingly meager screen-time they have together (and very little by way of interesting storytelling about the two of them as a unit post-marriage) that it is on the strength of their chemistry alone that the film holds together.  

Padukone is, in general, tremendous in the film, playing Mastani with an appealingly wanton quality and using those magnificent eyebrows and long, expressive hands to great effect in each of her magnificent dance numbers. It's a pity, then, that her Urdu is rather ragged and uninflected, especially given how solid her co-star's accent work is, alongside the rest of what he manages to accomplish in his superstar-making turn here.

I said a silent prayer of gratitude for Singh while watching the film. Thank heavens Bhansali wasn't able to make this film earlier with any of the other male stars he'd intended to cast. Singh is virile and beautiful as Bajirao, who is perhaps the most interesting male protagonist Bhansali has ever written. (The filmmaker's women are almost always the most compelling figures in his work; the men are generally immature, unworthy idiots or curmudgeonly saints.) Singh brings so much swagger to his deeply committed performance and is so ferociously, terrifyingly alive that the film almost seems like it's in 3-D when he's onscreen. His Bajirao is so many things — noble, funny, sexy, imperious, hotheaded, scheming, and eventually weary and broken — and the actor hits all of those notes without showing any sign of strain. You understand why the two women in his life are so hopelessly besotted with him. 

The second of those two women, Priyanka Chopra's Kashibai, is the film's most sympathetic character. Singh and Chopra's scenes with one another are full of warmth and humor in a way that his with Padukone just aren't. Chopra, in what is perhaps her best performance to date, brings reserves of dignity, humor, and warmth to Kashi and just about walks away with the film;  the wise, sweet Kashibai follows in the tradition of Madhuri Dixit's Chandramukhi (Devdas) and Rani Mukerji's Gulabji (Saawariya) as the character whom, despite her third-wheel status, the audience feels most for (and would probably like best in real life). 

Chopra gets the film's two most emotionally charged scenes — the first, where she finally reveals to Bajirao her anguish at having been abandoned; and the second, in which she visits her rival and encourages her to stay unwavering in the face of vitriolic intolerance. Chopra's Kashi is a paragon of traditional wifely virtue, but she is refreshingly uncompromising in her own way. She refuses to abnegate her self-respect by being content with her husband's second-best love. She refuses, also, to be unjust to the other woman; her resentment is reserved for the man who's made the decision to bring this other woman home.  

Chopra also gets the film's sexiest moment; she watches Singh bathe with unconcealed lust and is subsequently carried off to bed by him. Singh's romance with Padukone is chaste by comparison; the closest they get to physical intimacy is when he presses a dagger (no innuendo intended) into her back and when he helps deliver their baby. This bit is touching and funny, and not just because the baby is clearly fake.

Bajirao Mastani is Bhansali's first film based on historical events (if one discounts Black, which took significant inspiration from the Helen Keller story). Bhansali remains engaged primarily with the personal here, but he also concerns himself with the political in a way that he never did in his previous films. The film begins with Bajirao's declaration that he intends, by taking down the Muslim Mughals, to re-establish a Hindu empire in India. But he goes on to marry a Muslim woman and raise a Muslim son. The perceived corruption of the bloodline is what drives his mother, his brother, and the ruling religious order of his fiefdom to attack Mastani again and again. (All this maltreatment of Mastani gets a little repetitious, eventually; I'd rather have done away with it, and Singh's victory dance number, in favor of more of the lead pair together.) I was worried at the outset that Bajirao Mastani would take a troublingly of-the-moment Hindu supremacist view of the famed warrior's story, but it ends up being a fairly explicit call for inter-religious tolerance and harmony. As admirable as this message may be, it also feels facile, given that Bajirao's change of heart (which is what it really feels like, despite his subsequent claim to his mother that he was always fighting the Mughals, never the Muslims) isn't explored with any sort of nuance. And what of his massive ambition to conquer the entire nation? Bhansali doesn't quite know how to navigate Bajirao's aspirations as a statesman with the same level of engagement that he has with the character's domestic life. 

He does a better job of establishing Bajirao as a fearsome warrior, though, and Singh makes for a convincing and kinetic action star. Bhansali's aesthetic choices in the battle scenes are inspired by a couple unexpected sources: Wuxia films and graphic novels. (The thrilling opening credits make the latter inspiration explicit.) Despite these interesting influences, these scenes are not always visually successful. I wish Bhansali had relied less on CGI and more on practical effects and an impressionistic filming style, where cunningly chosen detail, rather than slightly incoherent editing and computer-generated trickery in unkind close shots, could have given us a sense of the action. 

Otherwise, however, this is an intimidatingly gorgeous film. Bhansali's visuals are, contrary to popular opinion, not pretty just for the heck of it. He gives the audience much to look at, but not out of a desire to pander. The glorious-looking worlds of his films, where each color and element is full and vigorous, are the most effective setting for the vivid, heightened emotional states of his characters. The compositional symmetry of his scenes and set pieces makes for the sort of backdrop against which the unrelenting forces of chaos set in motion to thwart his protagonists stand out in especially startling relief. 

Throughout Bajirao Mastani, I was almost afraid to blink for fear of missing some new wonder, some gleaming beauty. I almost laughed out of sheer disbelief during Deewani Mastani, a musical sequence of absurd, discombobulating beauty. (Mastani dances in a brazen whirl of gold in this number, but I was struck by how she, after her move to Pune, is almost always situated in enormous, ruin-like, shadowy rooms, a woman in the middle of hostile seas.) Bajirao Mastani's symphonic visual language is rich with diverse influences (Mughal tapestries, the Ajanta cave murals, Raja Ravi Verma paintings), but the resulting look is singular, purposeful, and memorable.

Ultimately, Bhansali and his team are trying to give us an experience, bold and large and go-for-broke, in Bajirao Mastani. The film has its faults, but halfheartedness or laziness are not among them.This is a film that is naked in its desire to stir and impress, and, to its credit, it often succeeds. Bajirao Mastani, exhausting as it can be, is a forceful, exhilarating work.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On "Tamasha"

Tamasha, Imtiaz Ali's latest film, is fortified with all the strengths the director's movies usually possess and weakened by a number of the same flaws. And just like most of his work, it is wonderful and frustrating. 

Here, too, is a man (Ved Vardhan Sahni, played by Ranbir Kapoor) who is broken and can only be fixed by the loving ministrations of a woman (Deepika Padukone's Tara Maheshwari) he puts through the wringer. Here, too, are the existential dilemmas of well-off folks who need to find themselves through tourism and romantic adventure in verdant, picturesque lands, far away from the quotidian distractions of work, family, and real life. Here, once again, are mental health issues, not fully understood or explicated,  and eventually  fixed rather conveniently, as they invariably are in his happy-ending films (Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal before this one), by requited romantic love and the successes that love inspires in the world of his films.

But Tamasha, like the rest of the films in Ali's oeuvre, mines an almost spiritual sort of wonder from the notion that romantic love warms the great, cold gloom of life into something meaningful and transcendent. Ali has a way with making love's most ineffable experiences visible in his films. He insinuates himself into the companionable silences of kindred spirits, captures the barely contained heat that rises off lovers, simulates with an astonishing keenness of eye the childlike joyousness, the sun-dappled idyll of falling in love and the sad, clanging hideousness of trying to fall out of it. 

I found myself reacting intensely to Tamasha's conception of love as a force of freedom and for good. The film's lovers, in its halcyon Corsica portion, form a jolly, candid friendship right away. They feel emancipated by each other to find in themselves the sweet, unchecked vigor of childhood and also grow toward better, less phony versions of themselves. They both challenge and comfort each other. Well, Ved is challenged and comforted by Tara; the narrative shortchanges her and focuses on him. She is rounded out not by Ali's screenplay but by Padukone's generous performance. As she has been in all of her recent work, she is the cynosure of every scene she's in, bringing to the bracing, unembarrassed Tara a shimmering transparency.

Ali's vision has, in spite of its steadfast faith in the redemptive enchantment of love, darkened with each film, and he lets the shadows swallow his lead players whole before they find their happy ending in Tamasha. They lose hold on their dignity, their sense of self, even their sanity before they are allowed to find their way back to each other. And Kapoor and Padukone together are so vivid, so easy that I was convinced that their characters ought to be together, once he figures his shit out, of course. Some may, with good reason, find her acceptance of him at the end  too facile, even masochistic, but I bought it. Padukone turns into a creature of light and air when she's around the version of Ved that isn't a boring little office drone. (Ranbir, with his French beard, bad posture, and flattened out speech, plays this tedious, unctuous, flavorless man, the one who the girl would dump for the leading man in other love stories, with as much care as he does the flamboyant pixie that is, according to the film and Tara, Ved's true self.) When the two look at each other, you believe they're seeing each other.

But before he makes their match, Ali constructs an idealist's argument for the the value of a fully examined life. Tamasha is a lyric battle-cry against anodyne conformity. Ali calls, like Rajkumar Hirani (in 3 Idiots) and Zoya Akhtar (in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do) before him, for the liberation of the (generally straight, cismale) self from conformity through joyous art-making, lovemaking, and travel. But he makes his case with wit and audacity, creating a kind of arch collage of image and sound for his film. He directs his actors to play straight, and stages stretches of the film with casual naturalism. But he also calls attention to the artifice of film as a medium of storytelling with playful, showy touches.  He marks "chapters" with French pulp illustration-style title cards that reference pulp Bollywood movies. He slices up the narrative often so the audience is kept just a smidge disoriented by the back and forth of the non-linear narrative. He spins a haze of golden, wine-soaked glamor all over the couple's romp in Corsica, which unspools with a delightfully relaxed unpredictability, and then shoots the Delhi portions like a thriller, mostly at night (the daylight scenes are mostly of Ved going through the motions, again and again, at home and work; if one were to name an Instagram filter inspired by the tone of these parts, it'd be called "Antiseptic"), with silences that are always on the threshold of ominous. He has the characters from the tales little Ved likes to listen to (in a flashback marked "flashback") haunt the streets of Shimla in costumes clearly realized in the imagination of a child. (Laxman is wearing a school-uniform sweater under his bow.) 

Ali also makes cunning, unexpected use of AR Rahman's score; troupes of balladeers in Punjab sing to the audience as Tara struggles to recover from her love affair in Kolkata. An autorickshaw driver is seen, in his memory, singing a lusty folk number, while he reminisces about his past glory in the presence of a lost Ved at a roadside dhaba. The sad, sweet Agar Tum Saath Ho plays as Ved leaves Tara, his walk slowed to the herky-jerky movement of an eight-bit video game. All this showy technique doesn't bug, however, since this is, after all, a film about finding new ways to tell old stories and choosing new stories to tell about oneself. 

Tamasha and its protagonists are idiosyncratic enough, its play of wide-eyed hopefulness and quiet despair compelling enough, that the film develops an appealing strangeness that overcame, for the most part, my instinctual desire to roll my eyes at its earnest insistence on individualism in a story about pretty, privileged, able-bodied people in a society that sets very few challenges in the way of their path to self-actualization. Tamasha's weirdness, and the radiant conviction of its female lead, save it from smugness.

Monday, May 18, 2015

On "Bombay Velvet"

Bombay Velvet is an ambitious film. Anurag Kashyap's assiduously crafted period piece wants to be an alternate history of Mumbai's rise after the fall of the British Raj. To this end, Kashyap shows us archival footage of Bombay and a map of the city as its overlords envisioned it at the time. He has characters deliver, in the form of dialogue, contextual information about land reclamation and political chicanery.  In a postscript, he updates us on the present status of the city and tells us what came of the actual real estate developments that the fictional characters in the film concern themselves with. An enormous set and impressive visual effects are used to gorgeously evoke a vision of Bombay in the fifties and sixties that is so richly and specifically detailed that it reads as authentic. Kashyap is intent on making a magnum opus.

The problem with the film is that its grand aspirations are tacked on to a story that is pure pulp, and not particularly inspired pulp at that. The plot is focused on an immoral goon who is, like the film constructed around him, frighteningly ambitious. It is the usual rags-to-riches-to-revenge stuff that is rife with all sorts of ramshackle coincidences and improbable developments. And it is not sound enough scaffolding for the Serious Filmmaking that Kashyap is going for in his retelling of the initial chapters in Mumbai's post-Independence history. The masala-noir contrivances don't really hold up under the kind of scrutiny that a film that actually wants to say something meaningful about history would generally be subjected to. On the other hand, the filmmaking is often slightly bloodless, and that approach might be in line with the high-minded tangents Kashyap wants to make but is at odds with the movie's larger-than-life, filmi aspects. 

Furthermore, the protagonists aren't particularly compelling. Johnny Balraj (Ranbir Kapoor) wants to be a big-shot because he started out with nothing. But he is not interesting, uniquely intelligent, or even charming. He just wants more money and more power. He is arrogant, evil-tempered, and homicidal. He doesn't have a heart of gold or any scruples to speak of. He's basically the villain from a standard-issue Bollywood movie, except he gets a backstory. Oh, and he likes this girl. Rosie Noronha (Anushka Sharma) has killed her abuser and run away from Portugese-occupied Goa. She takes risqué pictures to jumpstart her career as a singer and finds herself a sugar daddy. On this man's command, she enters Balraj's life to get something out of him (negatives for an incriminating picture of a politician – the business surrounding these negatives is uninteresting and unconvincing throughout) but ends up falling in love with him. All of this ought to make for a fascinating character, but Rosie is mostly passive and sad. When the film showed us Rosie's childhood right after it showed us Balraj's, I figured that it would really be about both of them. But Rosie is just The Girl. I wish we'd seen her write her own music or rise through the ranks at Bombay Velvet, the club Balraj runs. (I suspect, based on the presence of Raveena Tandon, who gives the film a jolt of much-needed sex appeal in her all-too-brief appearances, that a subplot about Rosie supplanting an established singer at the club was left on the editing table. I feel like too much has been taken out of the film in general; as a result, it's slightly incoherent.) 

Balraj and Rosie's love is supposed to motivate much of the film's action. Balraj wants to make it big so he can win Rosie, for one. But Kashyap, once again misjudging what is interesting about his film, does not really show us how the two actually fall in love. Also, the leads are not the sort of performers who can enliven a thin or unsympathetic part by sheer force of charisma. Madhuri Dixit and Amitabh Bachchan, to name the most notable examples, routinely employed megawatt star power to turn wan outlines of an archetype into characters worth rooting for. Kapoor and Sharma are both excellent actors, but they are not the sort of actors who can deliver a memorable performance when the character is basic-ish on paper.They both do the best they can, and Sharma is spectacularly moving in the film's showpiece number, Dhadaam Dhadaam (Amit Trivedi's score, by the way, is genius throughout), but old-fashioned magnetism is not either star's strong suit. I kept fantasy-casting the film as I was watching it, and I wondered what Ranveer Singh, with his manic, slightly sleazy energy, and Huma Qureshi, with her volcanic sexual charisma, would have done with these roles. 

The only intriguing prominent character in the film is Kaizad Khambatta, the silken, scheming power player who backs Balraj's rise and authors his fall. Karan Johar, in his first major film role, gives us a sense of the unconventional character's dimensions and desires in a surprisingly sexy performance; the screen just about thrums with menace when he appears. Khambatta merely alludes to his origin story (he is the scion of a major publishing family that had fallen on hard times and has had to rebuild the newspaper practically from scratch), but Johar finds a way to work the weight of the neurosis resulting from his unpleasant history as well as the heat of his lust for Balraj into his scenes. Khambatta is also the only character in whom Kashyap successfully reconciles the film's interest in the backroom politics that created modern-day Mumbai and its negotiation of more genre-y conventions.

I want to be clear that I did not find Bombay Velvet worthless or tiresome. It looks and sounds stunning. It is intelligent in its craftsmanship and never boring. But I can't stop thinking about what the film could have been. For one, I rather wish Kashyap had set the film more fully at the titular club. I can imagine a Bombay Velvet that might have been about the schemers and climbers at each table, about the backstage rivalries and the shady dealings, and about the love between the ambitious manager of the club and its ingenue singer. It might have been more of an ensemble film, giving us glimpses of a variety of colorful characters instead of a conventional pair of lovers. It would have allowed for more tightly focused, satisfying storytelling and for a more organic-seeming, less awkward exploration of the city's culture and ethos at that time. But that might not be the film Kashyap wanted to make. As it stands, Bombay Velvet is admirable for its chutzpah, but it is not quite the Great Film it clearly aspires to be. (I'm very curious about what an extended cut would look like, though.)

Monday, January 26, 2015

On "Dolly Ki Doli"

(Spoilers ahead!)

Dolly Ki Doli could have been a terrific little film if the plotting were not so frustratingly facile. The idea of a young woman tricking men into marrying her and then making off with their money is rich with potential for both humor and intrigue, but the narrative rushes from one plot point to the next with such little concern for internal logic that the film starts feeling a little limp. Characters turn up at places, discover crucial information, and get out of trouble without the audience ever finding out how they did it. I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief if the film asks for it, but this one isn't aiming for farce. The tone is, if not realistic, then at least fairly low-key. Thus the slapped-together, ramshackle plot feels egregious.

One of the film's pleasures is that it runs a brisk hundred minutes, and I don't think it should have been longer. But the makers ought to have lopped off a few slow-mo walks and wedding-montage bits and showed us in greater depth how Dolly and her gang make their cons work again and again without getting caught. There's a bit where someone tries to take a picture of Dolly on her phone but she hides her face, but how have they managed to stop people from taking smartphone pictures before this? Also, the film goes to great lengths to show us that Dolly avoids all physical intimacy with her grooms, not only making excuses to forego consummation but managing to convince them they shouldn't even touch her on the wedding night. I mean, your husband is probably going to want to at least make out on your wedding night even if you're on your period.

The film is not without its joys, though. Some of the funny bits are actually pretty, well, funny. Archana Puran Singh is especially hilarious as a domineering matriarch, and her caftans are amazing. (The costuming is pretty great throughout, and gives you an instant sense of who the characters are or who they're pretending to be.) The cast is stacked with wonderful character actors, who do a great deal with small, lightly outlined parts. The leads are all good (with the exception of Pulkit Samrat, who has very nice skin but whose acting is weak Salman pastiche). Rajkummar Rao sells the smarm and the heartache equally well; there are few young leading men working in Hindi films right now who can fashion such clever, subtle performances out of under-written roles. Sonam Kapoor still does her best acting in her quiet moments, since her voice isn't her strongest asset. (She is lovely in the beautiful flashback number, Mere Naina Kafir.) But she brings a sense of humor to her coy girl-next-door act as bride-Dolly, and gives "real" Dolly a casual steeliness that I was into.

I also appreciated Dolly as a character. Dolly is amoral, but she isn't weak or foolish. A strong female protagonist in a Bollywood comedy is rare enough that Dolly's character felt fairly radical to me. The narrative, for all its flaws, never neuters her or robs her of her agency, even when you are certain that it will. She gets a tragic backstory, but she states clearly that her past doesn't define her or explain her. I'm not particularly turned on by criminals and antiheroes in fiction or films, but there's a unapologetic patriarchy-smashing quality to Dolly's escapades that feels unusual and subversive. I wish the film built around her had been as interesting as Dolly herself, but I'll take what I can get, which, in the case of Dolly Ki Doli, is a moderately enjoyable diversion.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bollywood in 2014: The Films and Performances I Loved

All my favorite Hindi movies of 2014 have a number of things in common. Each features a clutch of memorable performances. Each is anchored by strong female protagonists whose concerns are never just limited to romantic entanglements. None of them is set in a generically pretty universe of brightly lit mansions and apartments and fashion-magazine-ready international locations. Instead, every one of these films immerses us in specific, idiosyncratic worlds one rarely gets to visit in Bollywood cinema.

Dedh Ishqiya, for instance, richly imagines and realizes both the particulars of small-town North Indian life and the elegant decline of the world of the Nawabs. And the language in the film, the sinfully gorgeous Urdu poetry as well as the slangy hilarity of the banter between Khalu and Babban (Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, playing off each other with virtuoso joyfulness), feels like a reproach to the Hindi films that sound like their lines were written in English and then run through Google Translate. 

Dedh Ishqiya also gives us not one but two great female characters (engaged in a queer love story, no less). Madhuri Dixit's Begum Para is, in essence, a major movie star played by a major movie star. Para-jaan's life is a great, cunning performance, and Dixit, acting with her hands, her eyebrows, even her sunglasses, imbues the part with her own legendary charisma (which has, with time, gained an impossibly sexy imperiousness) and a few hints of seams-showing desperation. Huma Qureshi, as her companion Muniya, proves once again that she is the most ferociously attractive young female actor working in Bollywood right now. The naturalism of her performance only heightens the take-no-prisoners nature of her appeal. Their chemistry made me want a Begum-Muniya spinoff.

Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider is, in my opinion, the best Hindi film of 2014. I loved the film's potent, Kafka-esque blend of surrealism, paranoia, and wicked humor; its resolute, unafraid exploration of thorny histories (both personal and political); the strange, tender love story between mother (the masterful Tabu, in my favorite performance of the year) and son (Shahid Kapoor, who finally establishes himself as a heavyweight among Bollywood's leading men). Haider is a magnificent lyric tragedy.

Ankhon Dekhi, a thoughtful little film about a middle-aged man who decides that he will only believe the things he sees with his own eyes, has much on its mind, some of it fairly heavy. But it feels neither ponderous nor self-important. The filmmaking is surefooted and light of touch, marrying existential concerns with a clever sense of humor and an unerring eye for the wealth of detail that make up the banal, glorious clutter of everyday existence.  Rajat Kapoor gets the film's resolutely unhip middle-class milieu warmly, wonderfully right. The leads, Sanjay Mishra and Seema Pahwa, are astonishing.  Mishra is all gentle bewilderment and even gentler enlightenment. I thought of my own mother more than once while watching Pahwa. Their performances are so honest, they feel like life itself.

Queen is the year's sweetest fantasy of self-actualization. A feel-good film in the best possible sense, Queen gives us a protagonist truly worth rooting for. Rani is so many of the girls you and I have known in South Asia and probably in the rest of the world. These girls dress modestly and do as they are told and never get to truly decide what their lives ought to be like. My mother was one of these girls. I have cousins and friends who are these girls. Their lives often feel like tragedies of unacknowledged desire and potential. But in Queen, one of these girls takes flight (after asking her father for permission, natch), and it's thrilling to watch her.  

Kangana Ranaut's work in the film is an achievement because she doesn't play Rani as a specific type or a neatly curated set of characteristics. In a way, she doesn't play her at all. This is a performance that doesn't feel like a performance, because it seems entirely unaware of any possible audience and completely free of actorly self-consciousness. Ranaut saves the film from sliding into manipulation or predictability.

Bobby Jasoos is the other pleasingly feminist entertainer I loved this year, although it found far fewer takers than Queen. Too bad, because this is a darling little film. You know the sort of horrid Bollywood movie that's often described by its directors as a "family film"? It's generally crammed with sexist and homophobic jokes, dance numbers that use female bodies as props, and rarely anything that resembles a real-life family. Bobby Jasoos is nothing like that, and it is exactly the sort of thing I'd describe as a family film, since one could have a great, unembarrassed time watching it with one's dad and mum and siblings and grandparents. It's good-hearted and entertaining and never gets too dark, but it is filled with people whose personalities and aspirations have something to do with the people you or I would know. The film is about a woman living in a Hyderabadi Muslim family who wants to become a detective in spite of her father's disapproval. There's a mystery to be solved, although it's fairly facile. The film is not a standout entry in the detective-movie genre. But the familial dynamics are compelling and authentic, and, while the film's tone is merry, its central premise - the struggle women in largely conservative cultures encounter in reconciling the pursuit of their own desires to the mandates of a patriarchal social structure – is serious stuff.  

Vidya Balan, who has never been bad in a movie, doesn't act like a heroine. She isn't winning or saintly. The charm isn't on at full blast. Bobby is just a regular person who wants what she wants and works tirelessly to get it. Balan here is that rare creature - an actor in a conventional mainstream film whose performance has a fully-formed, worn-in, regular-person quality to it.

Imtiaz Ali's Highway, like Queen and Bobby Jasoos, also sets its female lead on a path toward emancipation, but his film, in which a young girl forms a bond with the criminal who kidnaps her, is uninterested in the sort of happy ending that gives audiences the warm-fuzzies. I had significant issues with Highway. Ali tends to add at least a couple of entirely unnecessary notes of sentimentality to his otherwise carefully considered films. Here, he is not content to leave the relationship between Veera, the eventually willing captive, and Mahabir Bhati, her tormented captor, nebulous and undefined. He has to literalize it, which is especially troubling given how problematic their equation is in many ways. Ali also seems, in his sympathy for the kidnapper (a terrific, often terrifying Randeep Hooda), to go a few steps too far in trying to cast him in a retrospective halo. The ill-conceived coda, in which Veera pictures the two of them as children hanging out together, made me groan out loud in the theater.

Still, this is a charged, beautiful film. Shot on a variety of real, stunning Indian locations, it has an offhanded but unforgettable gorgeousness that made me glad that I was watching it on a giant screen. Its score is unusual and great. (Patakha Guddi is a firecracker of a song.) And Alia Bhatt as Veera is heartbreakingly good. There is a casual, candid quality to her acting that I find irresistible. 

Alia Bhatt might be 2014's MVP, also shining in two hit rom-coms, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania and 2 States, neither of which I was crazy about (though Varun Dhawan's crack comic timing in the former was a happy revelation). I did, however, enjoy Hasee Toh Phasee, which had a troublingly dim understanding of mental illness but got both its romance and comedy beats just right. I especially liked that you could sense the connection between the two leads right from the beginning, and the girl didn't have to become "normal" or be prettified before the guy fell for her. (And this from Dharma Productions, the house that Rahul and Anjali built!) Parineeti Chopra somehow crafts a cohesive, touching performance out of what seems to have been written as a bag of tics, and she has all sorts of heat with Sidharth Malhotra, who undercuts his dreamboat looks with a dopey, wounded sensitivity. Speaking of dreamboats, I also enjoyed Fawad Khan, whose old-Hollywood gravitas I suspect I will need regular doses of, in the silly but pleasant Khoobsurat. Deepika Padukone's enormous eyes and megawatt screen-presence enlivened the otherwise pedestrian Happy New Year and the pretty but insubstantial Finding Fanny, the highlight of which was a big, sexy, hysterically funny performance from the criminally underused Dimple Kapadia.

Bollywood in 2015 looks enormously exciting. The list of major, interesting-sounding films, made by directors with sterling records, is long. (Just off the top of my head: Badlapur, NH10,  Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Piku, Bombay Velvet, Shamitabh, Wazir, Dil Dhadakne Do, Shaandaar, Fan, Bajirao Mastani . . .)  2014 was more modest (of course, it ends with big, loud, sneakily radical PK, which is, as I write this, earning about a zillion Rupees) There were a few heartwarming surprises, some stunning artistic comebacks, some dire failures that gave a few among us a mean little jolt of schadenfreude (*cough*Humshakals*cough*). A number of female-led films did excellently, and probably were more profitable in terms of their return on investment than many of the expensive, shoddily made movies built around middle-aged male superstars. (Unfortunately, each time one of the former does well, it will be seen as something of a fluke, and no matter how many Action Jacksons do badly, we'll get four more of those next year.) But overall, it was a totally not-horrible year for Bollywood-watchers. And really, can anything in 2015 really top the cheesy, ear-wormy, insane genius of this?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Bunch of Thoughts on "Happy New Year"

1) This film is long. SO long. There's a moment, right before Farah Khan's name shows up in the opening credits, when Shah Rukh Khan's voiceover informs us that "Lambi kahaani hai" ("It's a long story.") An hour in, the movie was barely done introducing its principal cast, and I realized that SRK's line might, in fact, have been a threat. 

The problem is, they easily could have trimmed about a third of the film without losing out on anything substantive. The protagonist, Charlie, is planning a heist to avenge his father. It's not a super-unusual or particularly interesting heist (it's got the usual lasers and passwords and vaults), except for the fact that he and his ragtag team have to participate in a dance competition in order to pull it off. But the audience has Charlie's plan explained to it at (excruciating) length again and again and again. Also, Farah Khan stages some fun gags and comic moments, but too many others just don't land. Nandu (Abhishek Bachchan) vomits at will, Jags (Sonu Sood) goes into rages when he thinks people are insulting his mother, Boman Irani's character gets stress fits. None of this is particularly funny, and all of it happens too often and for too long.

2) You know what they could have spent more of the film's exhausting run time on? Deepika Padukone. She may not be the great dancer she's playing (she is stunning but stiff in Lovely, winningly fluid in Manwa Laage and the final dance number), but she has a delightful facility with the tonal shifts that often characterize masala movies. She can go from broad comedy to heartfelt, outsized emotion with no sign of strain. In Bollywood comedies, female actors rarely get to be funny, but Padukone steals every scene she's in. She's become the sort of actor-star that has you rooting for her no matter how under-written her part is. I missed her when she wasn't on screen. I wanted more of her.

3) I didn't want more of SRK's Charlie. however. One reason I enjoyed the much-maligned Jab Tak Hai Jaan so much is that Khan got to be charming in that easy, humorous, movie-star way that he possesses but hasn't shown us too often in recent years. I wish that's the sort of easy, unclenched attitude he'd gone for here, because that's the only way this sort of larger-than-life, filmi badass character works. (Watch Hrithik's sexy turn in Dhoom 2 and then Aamir's constipated one in Dhoom 3, and you'll know what I mean.)

My favorite SRK moments in this one were in the Satakli song where he got to be happy and smiley and just hang with the rest of the gang. SRK can play Big Man in Charge well, but only when the character is inherently the kind of guy you do want in charge (Kabir Khan in Chak De!), not just someone who gets to be the boss-dude because he's played by a superstar.  

Charlie is such a douche, though. He ropes in people who have nothing to do with his vendetta into his plan, knowing full well that if something goes wrong, they could go to jail as well. (We learn soon enough that his master plan, the one that has his gang constantly falling at his feet for, is flawed.) He constantly puts down Nandu and Mohini because the former is from a less privileged background and thus not classy enough, and the latter is a "bar-dancer" and therefore pretty much a sex worker. (Nothing wrong with being a sex worker. Unless, of course, you're chilling with Charlie. Because he'll be mean to you about it. Ugh.) Charlie also gets his nemesis's son thrown into jail even though that dude did nothing wrong. (I mean, his hair was . . . not good, but that is not a punishable offense.)

4) I have to, as always, give SRK credit for being a generous producer. The money shows on screen. The films toplined by most of the over-40 male superstar brigade usually look pretty low-rent these days, with tackily filmed songs and ugly sets. You just know that most of these films' giant budgets have gone straight into the pockets of their middle-aged leading men. But Khan actually wants to, at the very least, put on a good-looking show. He doesn't callously assume that the adoring fans will show up no matter how shoddily assembled the product is just because he's starring in it. Farah Khan, of course, is a deft hand with the only-at-the-movies spectacle; here, she serves it up in enormous, candy-colored heapings. You definitely want to see the aerial shots of Dubai all lit up on a big, big screen. Take food and a pillow, though, if you go. Seriously, I felt like I was in there for years.

5) The song sequences are pretty fun, but I really wish the staging and choreography had been more inventive. Remember the Farah Khan who shot Main Hoon Na's Chale Jaise Hawaein in one long, uninterrupted take? Remember her gloriously manic technicolor qawwali from the same film? I miss that Farah.

6) Speaking of Main Hoon Na, is it possible that Farah's never made a film since that hit her debut's sublime meta-masala high because she worked with a writer who could actually write on that one? Her subsequent films have had good gags here and there, but haven't worked as a coherent whole. Main Hoon Na, too, featured the over-the-top patriotism and the revenge plot that Happy New Year relies on, but those tropes worked because the characters felt like people, not accessories in extended comedy bits, and the world of the film felt fully realized, as loony as it was. (Hit Abbas Tyrewala up again, Farah! Or maybe Anurag Kashyap, since he's obviously willing to do crazy stuff for you! Anurag, good on you for being so game in your cameo, but that cross-dressing gag was not cool.) 

Related: Who would've thought that Rohit Shetty would make a better masala comedy with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead than Farah Khan? I'm just as shocked as anybody else.

7) I used to think self-referential Bollywood in-jokes were so funny and clever back in the early 2000s, but with this film, I think I'm completely over them, especially in SRK's movies. Keep those arms firmly pinned to your side, SRK. Never repurpose DDLJ quotes again, SRK.

8) Sonu Sood is the modern-day Vinod Khanna, right? Impossibly handsome, totally underrated, and with that unmissable quality of solid, heroic decency. Let's make Sonu Sood a star! (I actually kinda wanted Sonu and Deepika's characters to get together. He was so nice to her!) Also, while we're on the subject of handsome, underrated dudes, more Jackie Shroff, please. This film gives him a bit more to do than Dhoom 3, and his character here, a straight-up villain, is way more likable than the daft fool he played in that dull film. Dude knows how to chew up some primo scenery. Anyone who wants "I support the Shroffaissance" buttons and T-shirts, get in touch with me.

9) Abhishek is basically playing Uday Chopra's character from the Dhoom series here. He does it as well as Uday. (This is a compliment. Uday was, no lie, the best thing about Dhoom 3. By this point, you might have guessed that I did not much care for Dhoom 3.)

10)  I wasn't the only one rooting for the team of cute children to win the Indian rounds of the World Dance Championship, right? Those little girls looked so crestfallen when they lost!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On "Haider"

Vishal Bhardwaj's Haider is an achievement of lyrical, humanistic storytelling. Dense with history, but never pedantic, the film asks why people - creatures of flesh and blood, of love and desire, of songs and laughter - are the first to stop being of significance, to become invisible, to disappear in times of sociopolitical conflict. It is a pointed, sorrowful question, and Haider is a pointed, sorrowful movie.

Bhardwaj's retellings of Shakespeare's tragedies have always felt flavorful and specific, because he always finds a milieu for these centuries-old stories that gives them a jolt of immediacy and topical charge. You may not know the ins and outs, the various versions of the Kashmir story, or be intimately acquainted with this particular moment (the mid-nineties) in its history. But Haider's world will seem at least a little familiar to you, because various iterations of this setting – places of fear and grief and resentment, of soldiers in the streets and of diminished families in homes – are so often in the news that we are probably horrified when we pause to consider how used we've grown to the sights and sounds of people suffering. 

Haider's Kashmir is remarkable not just because of its powerful depiction of that sort of suffering, though. (At one point, a doctor diagnoses Haider with PTSD, but it isn't just him, the film suggests. The entire state is shellshocked. The trauma runs so deep that men have forgotten how to enter their own houses without being frisked.) It is also deeply moving in its evocation of a way of life that we haven't seen often enough on cinema screens. Bhardwaj goes in search for the color and richness in that way of life. He puts a ear to its heart for the music and the poetry in its voices. Fathers and sons sing together. Children learn and play. The dizzying patterns of flowers woven into the carpets and the shawls and painted onto the stoneware shimmer even as life after life goes barren. Haider casually situates its characters amid the flames of Kashmir's gulmohar trees and the elegant inevitability of its snowdrifts, not because these are picturesque, but because these characters belong to this beauty, and this beauty belongs to them. Haider reminds the viewer that the lives that we reduce to numbers (these many dead, these many wounded) are not abstractions. Bhardwaj doesn't dramatize this assertion with cinematic patness or with a heavy, accusing hand. He lets the intimate, warm, lived detail accumulate in each scene until this place feels real and bloody with life - life lived, savored, lost, wasted, truncated. Just as the Faiz Ahmed Faiz verses that close the film, Haider grieves the dead and the living left behind.

The question of grief is of great interest to Bhardwaj here. Haider doesn't know how to even begin grieving. How to process his beloved father's disappearance, his beloved mother's apparent betrayal? He acts out, he comes undone, he haunts the ruins of his childhood home. (Ghosts are a preoccupation in the film. The absence of disappeared family members haunts the lives of their loved ones, holding them in limbo. The specter of old joys and old loves hangs heavy. Men with mutable identities resurface from certain death and disappear into the snow. The Kashmir of Haider is, among other things, a cemetery, and nothing in it is completely dead.) Haider is furious and confused and unhinged and broken, sometimes all at once, and he stumbles painfully in his darkness. Shahid Kapoor, whose melancholy prettiness, sweet voice, and slightly manic way with comedy (and there is a good deal of twisted, Kafka-esque comedy here) suit him to Bhardwaj's cinematic vision, drives that pain home with emphatic grace. His scenes with Tabu (who plays his mother, Ghazala) are devastatingly romantic, the two performers responding to each other's faces and bodies and voices with clarity that feels instinctual. 

While Haider mourns as if that mourning is all that is real to him, Ghazala is aching to be done with mourning. She wants to free herself from the unhappiness of an unsatisfactory marriage, of a missing husband, of a long-absent son. Tabu, as this complex, fascinating character, does the kind of magisterial work that stays with you for a long time. Here is an actor whose unnervingly beautiful face I can watch for hours as it changes shade and register. She brought so much (sex, sadness, intelligence, charisma) to every line, every glance, every silence that I began wishing that the movie were entirely from Ghazala's perspective. Both mother and son are sympathetic. (Very few characters are painted entirely black in Haider; even Kay Kay Menon's unctuous, plotting uncle is lovelorn and wracked with guilt.) The plight of these two allows the film to wonder about the dilemma faced by a wounded people. Ought they to move forward? Can they move forward? Or must they engage again and again with their grief? Haider doesn't come to straightforward conclusions, but it nods toward both remembrance and compassion. The story ends, as everyone knows, in death. But Haider is not merely dirge; it is also serenade.