Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sangeet ke liye shukriya, Shamshad!

Other people much more qualified have written moving tributes to Shamshad Begum, who died today at 94. I have nothing to add to the praise rightly poured out, except to say that ever since I became interested in Hindi cinema, I have loved her songs, and felt that she was undervalued while alive. This is not a biographical paean, just an inadequate expression of my gratitude for all she gave us, and my sadness at her death.

My introduction to the legends of Golden Age playback singers set me on a different path to many in terms of appreciation. I first heard Lata in films from the 90s, by which time her falsetto was a hideous, torturous screech, physically painful to listen to, made all the more so by being paired with actresses young enough to be her great-grandchildren.To this day, I've been unable to complete my plans to watch more Karishma Kapoor movies because my ears recoil in pain when Lata's screeching fills the air. I have since heard and come to love many of Lata's earlier songs, but in terms of a place in my affections, those 90s films as an introduction guaranteed that she would never take first place

Lata's sister, on the other hand, I first heard from her heyday, and she remains my favourite female playback singer. After her comes Shamshad, whose distinctive voice makes it easy even for me, with all the musical perception of a dead fish, to jump up with excitement when watching a film and hearing a new song saying "Hey, that's Shamshad!". Here is the first song that I reacted to in that way:


I've subsequently been educated by several Hindi film buff friends  in the many grievous flaws of that film, but all I really remember is all the lovely Shamshad!

Being a fan of both Asha and Shamshad, watching Naya Daur was a real delight for me when reshami salwar started and I realised that my favourites were singing together. When I heard the sad news of her death, this song was the first one I turned to, to remember them both, in what was not their only "drag duet". The colourised version is an offence to the eyes, but their voices are still beautiful enough to distract from the garishness:


A highlight of the film Tanu Weds Manu for me was when Kangna's character dances to a song I had not previously heard. Now that I have  seen the original picturisation for kajra mohabbat wala I understand why it's top of so many people's lists of Shamshad songs, and I know that I need to see Kismat. My two favourites together again, once again blurring gender lines:


Since this is a celebration of Shamshad's impact on my experience of Hindi cinema, and a look at why her death literally made me shed a tear when other "bigger" names have not, I will conclude this brief tribute with the song that started it for me. The very first time I ever heard Shamshad's voice made an instant impression, in no small part because in the picturisation of this magnificent qawwali, she "won" the sing-off against the singer I still resented for hurting my ears. I can think of no better way to remember the unique treasure that was Shamshad than by letting her beat Lata one more time, in untainted monochrome - khudaa haafiz, begum:



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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Gattu

Gattu        Rajan Khosa                       fiftyfiftyme2013: Major



I got this film primarily because it was produced under the auspices of the Children's Film Society of India while Nandita Das was chairperson. It was a tangential connection to my filmi favourite, but seeing her listed first in the "Special Thanks" made me feel good. So did the film.

Some synopses have used phrases like "The story of an orphan chasing his dream". That might make it sound like this film is going to be unbearably twee or saccharine. It isn't. In fact, for the first twenty minutes or so, I was wondering whether Ms Das's involvement actually meant that this was doomed to be some sort of Dickensian horror that ended bleakly. Happily, it wasn't that either.

I  found Gattu to be a great children's film. Uplifting with a positive tone fitting for its audience, and with a clear moral or message, but devoid of sickly sentimentality. The first twenty minutes or so in particular reminded me that the world of Indian children like Gattu is more remote from my experience or comprehension than Mars will ever be. The candour of the film in showing the world of its orphan hero was never overwhelmingly grim, coming across as more matter-of-fact, "this is how it is" than any "slum porn" glorification or romanticising of hardship. 

The casual and accepted use of violence and humiliation as disciplinary tactics by authority figures was another reminder that this was another world, but the film strove to show that the people doing these things were not sadistic bullies, but people who meant well, for the most part. 

The characterisations were the strength of the film, especially Gattu. A very focused young boy, his dream of conquering the seemingly invincible patang known as Kali is the core of the story. Everything he does is about trying to beat the unknown flier of the black kite with a legendary status in his town. His determination to beat Kali sees him steal a uniform to gain access to a local school, whose roof is the highest point in town. 

An illiterate orphan child labourer breaks into a school whose motto is satyamev jayate - it probably doesn't take a degree in film studies to work out where this goes. Indeed, the inevitability of the outcome resulted in a mildly jarring transformation in a couple of the characters, a slightly rushed revelation of their better natures that seemed a bit implausible. The ending of the film with children singing saare jahaan se achchaa also struck a false note with me as a somewhat manipulative display of nationalism. Then again, this is an Indian film for children, funded by the Children's Film Society of India, a part of a government ministry, so nationalist propaganda and a happy ending that seemed a bit convenient were not deal breakers.

This was another film in a similar vein to Stanley ka Dabba and I Am Kalam. I enjoyed all three  very much, and while Gattu did not wow me as much as the exceptional Kalam, like them it did draw me into to its sweet tale and make me care about what happened to its hero, primarily thanks to a great performance from its young lead. If you're looking for a child-friendly film with a good message and engaging characters, Gattu will not disappoint.


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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi

Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi   Bela Sehgal     fiftyfiftyme2013: Major



The skies above the frozen fires of Hell are thick with billions of pigs taking wing. This must be so, for I find myself obliged to say nice things about a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film.

I rented this film for Boman Irani, and for the promise of a very rare type of story in Hindi films, a mature romance. I had no idea that the film was written by a director whose work I generally abhor, and directed by his sister. I am pleased I didn't know because in the end, the film was more hit than miss.

The misses in the film were its music and some of its comedy routines. The music was banal and bland, and didn't not identify with the distinguishing characteristic of the story, the age of the protagonists. I don't blame SLB too much for the banal, trite music, since such is the norm in 90% of Hindi films these days, and the songs in this film were no worse than the pap that pads out so many films. Nevertheless, they were too numerous and together they accounted for a sizeable chunk of the two hour run time. Had all but two been cut, the film would have been tighter and less saggy.

Many of the comedy routines were similarly uninspired and cliched. Most Hindi films derive much of their humour from mocking those who are different, and in this film the message is apparently, "Parsi are paagal". From Uncle Feroze with his unrequited crush on Indira Gandhi to the flintlock pistol wielding loon from Shirin's Baug, too many of the comic elements of the film were too loud, unsubtle and long. As with his own overblown and self-indulgent films, so too in this one SLB demonstrates that he holds no truck with the concept of "less is more". The comic parts of the film were not all failures, though. The scene with the "swallowed" diamond ring was one of several that made me laugh, and also demonstrated the strength of the film - the relationship between Shirin and Farhad.

It was this feature that drew me to watch the film, and it was the reason I had to end up giving the film a passing grade, in spite of myself. As writer, SLB deserves credit for penning a story of a sort almost never told in Hindi cinema, a tale of first-time love between two people in their forties. With Shah Rukh, Saif and Salman all tirelessly pretending there's nothing at all creepy in romantic pairings with actresses barely half their age, the age setting of this film was truly refreshing. I've never seen Farah in a major role, and was pleasantly surprised at how well she did, given the inconsistencies in the writing.

The film did an OK job of addressing the issue of never-married forty somethings in a marriage-obsessed culture. The most successful comic elements and the most believable drama came from their interactions, as they both sailed into uncharted waters. The film was definitely not without flaws, but I applaud the Bhansalis for venturing into the undiscovered country of mature romance, and hope that the film's non-failure will encourage other writers and directors to follow suit. If SFKTNP opens the door for films that facilitate the return of actresses like Juhi, Madhuri and (I can dream!) Nandita, then this surprisingly unawful film will have been even more worthwhile.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Ferrari Ki Sawaari

Ferrari Ki Sawaari   Rajesh Mapuskar                   fiftyfiftyme2013: Major



From No Country For Old Men through everything Tarantino's ever done,from Rowdy Rathore to Agneepath and Gangs of Wasseypur  it seems that the one prerequisite today  to being lauded as a work of cinema is violence - lots of it, and the more graphic and realistic, the better the artistic merits of the film. Reviewers wax lyrical and in-depth on the creative artistry and beauty of the violence in films like these. I am not one of those reviewers, and Ferrari Ki Sawaari is not one of those films.

I have a vanishingly low tolerance for violence, which means that most of the films that get raved about I choose not to watch. It also means I end up watching films that are treated dismissively by those who feel that what bleeds should lead. Watching Ferrari Ki Sawaari reminded me that I'm fine with all of that. I am not pretending that Ferrari Ki Sawaari is a work of cinematic genius or even of lasting import. But one of the best things about the film is that it doesn't pretend that either. A Twitter friend described it as a "ladoo+gulab jamun combo of cuteness and saccharineness", and that's not only a perfect description, it sums up what  the film is proud to be. That honesty redeemed the film for me.

The story is tissue thin and the plot, or at least its outcome, is predictable in the extreme. Devoted single Dad (widowed, of course) raising cricket prodigy son needs an unattainable sum of money to send his son to a cricket camp at Lord's. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that the ending is very definitely Lagaan, not Mother India. It's not the journey, but the refreshing spirit in which it's taken that won me over. Boman Irani is great as the gruff, embittered Dadaji with a tragic past, and Paresh Rawal once again demonstrates that he was born to play villains, even light comic ones like his character in this film. Vidya Balan lights up the screen in her special appearance, looking like she's genuinely enjoying herself.

As Hindi cinema increasingly apes the West with its obsession on  portraying only darkness seriously, and insisting that anything else is done "ironically", this film was a pleasant surprise. It's cloyingly sweet, and it knows it, and it doesn't apologise for it. It's a Disney-style fairy story, offering its viewers the chance to laugh and enjoy the ride, without having to view it through the prescription lenses of pretension. If you need anger, angst and bloodshed to enjoy a film, avoid this one at all costs. If you want a break from that for a couple of hours, and feel like getting a major cinematic sugar rush, take a ride in Sachin's Ferrari. 

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Crivens! I'm Done!

Discworld


Writing Discworld has taken thirty years of Terry Pratchett's life. Reading it has taken thirty months of mine. It's the first time I've read thirty-nine novels by the same author, so it seems appropriate to take a look back at the series. In 2012 as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, I  wrote up almost every book I read, including eleven of the Discworld series. I read the last ten books of the series in the first five weeks of 2013, finishing with Snuff.

As a long-time fan of all things HHGTTG, I enjoyed the Adams-lite feel to the first few books in the Discworld series. Starting with The Colour of Magic, I was struck by the similarity in style to that of Douglas Adams. Rincewind and his psychopathic luggage are very entertaining characters, and the introduction of the witches in the hilarious Shakespeare-skewering Wyrd Sisters was a portent of better things to come.

DEATH
If the young Pratchett of the early books was to some extent still looking for his own voice, he found it when he started speaking in SMALL CAPS. Pratchett's Death is one of my favourite literary characters, and his attempts to understand the psyche of humans, who gave him form,  are touching, thoughtful and very, very funny. His fondness for humans and his battles on their behalf with the Auditors of Reality make the Death series my favourite. Even in the most serious of the novels, Death's cameos can be counted on to lighten the mood. Death's granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is another favourite character, and the TV adaptation of Hogfather imprinted its cast as the characters in my mind.

The City Watch

The biggest series arc within Discworld is the City Watch series. It is the vehicle Pratchett uses to most openly and loudly expound his own political and social views. It also features his two most interesting and complex characters, Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch (and eventually Duke of Ankh-Morpork) and Havelock Vetinari, Patrician (tyrant) of Ankh-Morpork.

Vimes is a street kid made good, and Vetinari is a Machiavelli-type politician with a humorous edge, as in his name, a play on the Medicis. The interplay between Vimes and Vetinari, and their development of an edgy symbiosis, is the real strength of the City Watch series. The  common social message of the novels is the focus on equal rights and tolerance, represented by the Watch hiring officers from all the various species of the Discworld. The political targets of the series include nationalism and patriotism (in Jingo, one of my favourites) and the role of the police in a "free" state (Night Watch).

Kidstuff

As the City Watch books became  more overtly political and serious, Pratchett's humour found more frequent expression in  books he wrote with younger readers in mind. The Amazing Maurice was a revelation, a thoroughly enjoyable read that at times scared me, even though I'm outside the target audience by three decades or so. The most truly horrific and frightening thing about the book was the afterword that revealed the hideous truth behind the story's central "villain". That made me squirm with shame and revulsion.  The Tiffany Aching series that starts with The Wee Free Men is not just an excellently constructed look at growing up, and what it means for a young person to have to assume adult responsibilities prematurely, it's also very funny. The  Nac Mac Feegle are hilarious, and it was great to once again laugh out loud a lot, something which the later Watch novels provide less opportunity for doing.

My Personal Favourite

After thirty-nine books that amused, entertained and educated me, my favourite remains the one that directly challenged Faith. A thought-provoking and often  funny look at religion and belief, and the way the former can suck the life out of the latter. "Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Last the Godde Dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed." Religion and belief have been responsible for horrible atrocities on this world and on Discworld, but throughout the series, Pratchett celebrates belief, and especially the power of belief, even when mocking or teasing it. It's a theme he comes back to again and again, the idea that "Humans need fantasy to *be* human" and that "You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become? " He lauds belief as a wonder of the human imagination, the same miracle factory that produced boredom: "Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom."

The one thing I haven't touched on is how wonderfully well-written most of the books are. Pratchett writes deft literary zingers with real skill, and draws from all sorts of inspirations. In I Shall Wear Midnight,  I laughed out loud when I realised that he'd paid homage to P.G. Wodehouse with the main antagonist's back story. His humorous explanations of everything from folklore to physics are clearly the product of careful research and the way he often sneaks them in shows that he loves learning and trying to infuse the same delight in others. The novels featuring The Sweeper are great examples of this, but almost every Discworld story puts a broad range of human knowledge to work entertaining its readers. I know that I've laughed out loud at things that many  others would not find funny, and I am certain that I totally missed laugh lines that others would have found hilarious.

Hilariously funny, bitterly angry, poignantly scary, eruditely entertaining, and thought-provoking - Discworld is all these things and more, with lashings of puns and other clever wordplay on the side. From a raven called Quoth who warns people not to say the "N" word, to the multiverse's most interesting Librarian, the Discworld is filled with characters that will make you think while they make you laugh.  If just one person reads this and decides to look past the "fantasy" genre label and visit Discworld, then I shall have given Sir Terry at least a grain of the thanks I owe him. Ook!

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Summoning Dark

Thud! and Snuff  Terry Pratchett                                          fiftyfiftyme2013: Major



When I had read about fifteen or sixteen Discworld novels, I mentioned in a Bollywood web forum that I was working through them in publication order. One person replied "It might be best to start at the end and work backwards, as that way they would get better as you read more of them. Well, it's probably not as bad if you're in tune with his politics." By the time I got to the end of the series, I understood why he said that.

The earlier Discworld books are good-humoured satire, with lots of laughs as they poke fun at elements of human society. The later ones are often very much less funny, as Pratchett simply vents his views on serious political issues through a tissue thin covering of “satirical fiction”. Two examples are Feet of Clay and Night Watch. The person who said “work backwards” expressed strong support for the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and Pratchett’s increasingly open statements of his own social and political views would understandably irk someone holding such an opposing view.

In some of the later Discworld novels  though, Pratchett achieves a near perfect balance of the personal with the political, examining what makes a person tick, rather than just society as a whole. Two of the very best examples are Thud! and Snuff, books thirteen and twenty for me in my fiftyfiftyme challenge for 2013.

Thud! has as its political theme racism and the way historical grievances are exploited by those who see personal gain from keeping old hatreds alive, traditionalists and fundamentalists who seek to hold power at any cost. But the really interesting struggle in the book is a very personal one. Throughout the story, an ominous entity known to dwarves as The Summoning Dark keeps appearing, looking for a way in to the mind of someone that it can control. It’s only just before  the dramatic climax of the book that we discover its intended victim is none other than the hero, Samuel Vines, Commander of the City Watch. The description of Vimes’ battle against the essence of Anger and the way in which he eventually triumphed made this one of the most absorbing of the series for me.

The Summoning Dark returns in Snuff. This time, Vimes is transplanted to his wife’s country estate, and Pratchett explores the way power and privilege can warp the view of those born into them. As the ultimate rags-to-riches story, Vimes finds himself struggling with the conflict between his current social status and his view of those who feel they are above the law by virtue of their standing in society. The story involves slavery, drug smuggling and genocidal attitudes, as well as Vimes’ growing acceptance and mastery of his own inner demon, the Summoning Dark, which never left him and quite literally branded him for life. It’s this idea that makes these two books such great reading, I think. Vimes is one of Pratchett’s strongest and most nuanced characters, and these books show him first struggling with and nearly succumbing to atavistic rage, then learning how to channel that powerful force and “keep it in a cage” as  the dwarves say of him in Snuff.

Despite the serious subjects considered, these books are not all unrelenting darkness. There are flashes of the trademark Pratchett drollery (and punnery) in both, but only flashes. What I found especially fascinating was the sense that rather than just a generic “there’s rage in all of us” idea, these books show Pratchett himself getting the mastery of his own anger. His anger at the political, social and economic developments he attacks in the series is more controlled and  expressed with more care and balance in these books than in others, and personalising the struggle makes them read less like rants, more like absorbing stories.

These books prove that, like the real world, Discworld has changed over time. Whether that change is for the better or the worse, only the reader can decide. One thing  I am sure of thanks to books like Thud! and Snuff,  is that no one who reads enough of the series to make their own decision will regret doing so. Reading Discworld will leave its own  permanent brand, just like the Summoning Dark.


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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Barfi! (Strained love: How I learned to stop worrying and hate the accordion)

Barfi!  Anurag Basu                              fiftyfiftyme 2013: Major



Every now and again, a madness seizes me, and I decide to watch a movie that I know I won't like.So it was with Barfi!   I was even warned against watching it by some who did like it, including both Dolce and Namak.  All the reasons I thought I would dislike it proved to be true, in spades. Huge chunks of it were at best derivative, at worst outright plagiarism, and the background soundtrack was driven by a monomaniacal obsession with the belief that French-style accordion music automatically makes everything whimsical. It made me homicidal.

Looking back on my experience with Barfi,  the one thing I find hardest to believe is that I made it through the first twenty minutes. NEVER have I been filled with such rage at an overdose of twee. I like Buster Keaton, Chaplin in small doses and Amélie, but Basu's decision to  rip off all three, and crank them all up way past eleven made for a truly barf-y first half hour. Sheer bloody-minded masochism kept me going, and in the end, I'm glad I persevered.

This does not mean that I ended up liking the movie. The saccharine horror of the start was too great for me ever to like the film, but there were things about it that I did like in isolation, and which suggested how it could have been a film I would have really enjoyed.

I really like Ileana in this film. She is extremely beautiful, of course, but I thought she did well in a largely thankless role.  The clumsy emotional manipulation of the film with its "noble savages" adoration of the "incomplete" Barfi and Jhilmil meant that a real character was always going to have their work cut out getting any attention. Her vulnerability and inner conflict helped give the film some grounding, I thought.

I also liked the last thirty minutes of the film. For me, the ending showed what this film could have been - an interesting dramatic romance examining the challenges faced by the three leads. The "mystery" involving Jhilmil was not much of a mystery of course. It was immediately and transparently obvious who was primarily responsible and why, but as a mechanism for bringing real emotion into the story, it worked.

The songs too, were quite pleasant. In the early, agonisingly painful "clownish" passages, the light, hummable tunes were a break from the incessant whimsy, helping save my monitor from meeting my fist. I'm not sure why the copy I watched didn't have them subbed, but at least my Hindi was up to the task of getting the gist of the songs.

I would summarise this film as the anti-Aiyyaa. Overall I liked Aiyyaa, but I absolutely loved its opening twenty minutes or so - full-on, no holds barred 1000% Rani madness. Where I thought it stumbled was when it tried to come back down to Earth. With Barfi! I liked the last thirty minutes, when the attempts at "whacky whimsy" were done away with, and we saw what could have been, but by then the scars of the first half hour were too deep and too raw, and the film could not be saved.

One scene in particular sums up what I found most aggravating about the film. Shruti has driven from Kolkata to Darjeeling to support Barfi at the police station. After some time her husband turns up. Do we get any dialogue, any emotional interaction? No, what we get is more (insert gaali of choice here) ACCORDION music! A perfect summary of the first two hours of the film - avoid emotion, avoid conflict, make everything whimsical by just playing the accordion.

The promotional poster I used above nicely shows what I think of as the promise of Barfi!. It could have been an interesting film with potential for a nice blend of drama and comic relief. Instead, we learned that Basu knows how to recreate scenes from other films and that he loves the accordion.




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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

There's Glory For You!


One of the things I most enjoyed about last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge was the opportunity to choose minors and majors. This year’s reduction in the numbers required gives us grizzled veterans of last year’s campaign the opportunity to reminisce about how much tougher we had it back in the good old days, when a major was a real major of ten, and a minor was a meaningful five, not an namby-pamby three. Clearly fiftyfiftyme, like the English language, is changing for the worse, dumbing down and catering to the lazy, unwashed masses.

That last sentence was total baloney, of course. Fiftyfiftyme is as fun and challenging as ever, and English has not changed for the worse. Languages are not devolving from a Golden Age of eloquence into a Neanderthal series of grunting text messages and inane tweets. Sadly, many people think otherwise, which is why I decided to write about my books minor for last year’s challenge, in which I elected to read five books about linguistics. 

I love languages and linguistics, and have done ever since reading Lord of the Rings for the first time as an impressionable seven-year old. Then, and each of the 18-20 or so other times I read that book, I spent more time devouring the linguistic appendixes than reading the story. Tolkien’s epic gave me the languages bug, and I’ve loved learning about them ever since. Last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge provided the perfect motivation to indulge my passion by reading more widely on my favourite subject. I hope to read several more this year, enough to count as another minor, I think. 

Books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style perpetuate the myth that fabricated personal peeves are in fact ineradicable elements of English grammar. From rants against split infinitives to attempts to impose the rules of mathematics on language by insisting that “a double negative equals a positive”; from assertions that non-standard spelling is “a grammatical error” to the promotion of the etymological fallacy by denying the simple reality of polysemy, English has plenty of peeves and peevers. It seems that some people will readily say that everything in the Universe  evolves, but cannot accept that language does too.

Happily there are many excellent works written by real linguists for the general public. These books try to address that attitude and to show that as with everything, the only constant in language is change. No language is without rules, but those rules are not arbitrarily imposed by some peevish academic (or Académie) obsessed with imposing artificial order on the organic chaos of language. The beautiful reality is that language is the ultimate democracy – words mean what the majority of their users decide they mean, and every language user gets to be part of the never-ending process of making up the rules as we go along. The mathematician Dodgson was actually being peevish when he put the words of this post's title into Humpty-Dumpty's mouth, but he was not far from being right all the same. 

The endless fluidity and change in language should be celebrated, not mourned or railed against. The history of language is the history of civilisation, and the stories of language are as endlessly fascinating as its creators and shapers.That’s why I urge anyone looking for a non-fiction minor (or major) for this year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge to consider linguistics as a candidate. Here are five of my favourites:


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Friday, January 25, 2013

Maati Maay

Maati Maay   Chitra Palekar                fiftyfiftyme 2013: Other


My first Marathi film, Maati Maay was for me a return to my first love in Indian cinema, Nandita Das. This fine actress has made a career of making a lie of her name, and this film is no exception - laughter is  in very short supply.

The film tells the story of Chandi, a Dalit woman born into a family whose traditional role was to bury infant children and keep predators away from the graves. When her father dies she assumes the job, but when she becomes a mother herself, she wants to stop working around death. The film examines the results of her husband's failure to understand her stresses, and the community's reaction to her role as well as to her desire to change it.

I used to despair of Nandita's predilection for grim, heartbreaking stories, but this simple film is an example of why she chose the roles she did. It's an unflinching depiction of the consequences of profound communal ignorance and superstition and the way such fears and unquestioned faith can be exploited to excuse venality and misogyny. But it also has a message of hope, hope in the possibility of change.

 Chandi's whole world was a Dalit world, yet there was no sense of fellowship and sympathy, no noble "Harijan" brotherhood. Even at the bottom of the social heap, people still try to make themselves feel better by abusing others, and at every rung of the ladder, people resort to desperate measures to raise themselves up. It was to the film's credit  that in  telling a simple story of a man, his ex-wife and their son, it made its point without any need for sermonising dialogue. The father's narration of the story proved to be the closest he came to redemption, but it did at least set the scene for the boy to make his own choice in regard to his mother.

The film made very effective use of  haunting, piercingly sad songs, without any picturised song numbers, and as always, Nandita was the heart of the film. Her gradual transformation, driven by forces both without and within, was truly heartrending to watch and was portrayed with perfect finesse. Her role in the climax was satisfying, a vindication of her character that made it easier to watch. The scene that followed next, with a prolonged "will he, won't he?" dilemma for her son, was masterfully done. I felt certain he would, but the scene hung on long enough and built enough pressure to generate real doubt about the outcome. As much as I'm a hopelessly biased Nandita fan, the other two leads were also both very good. Atul Kulkarni shone as the conflicted and guilt-ridden yet still craven father. Not a brute, just an ignorant, weak-willed man, and Kulkarni did a great job of showing that.

This was not a fun film, but despite the tears I shed, I enjoyed it very much. I am indebted once more  to Katherine from Totally Filmi for giving me the link to the subtitled film on youtube, thank you! If moving personal dramas that convey important social messages through good storytelling are your cup of tea, then grab a box of  tissues and watch Maati Maay



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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola

Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola  Vishal Bhardwaj                      fiftyfiftyme 2013: Major


There are two general truths about my Hindi cinema experiences: They are very, very rare, and they are very, very disappointing. Rare, because I live 350 kilometres from the nearest cinema that regularly shows Hindi films, and disappointing because on the rare occasions I happen to be in that city, the films being shown are dire.  Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola  was both an exception to and a confirmation of those truths, which was fitting for the film itself.

Instead of having to wait months for a DVD, thanks to being in the right place on release day I got to see this film before almost all my filmi friends, courtesy of Aotearoa's advanced timezone. I was very excited about it for many reasons: The music seemed fun and lively,  and Pankaj Kapur was back to being in front of the camera, not behind it,  giving him a chance to atone for the awful Mausam. AlsoVishal Bhardwaj directed it, and I absolutely love the other three of his films that I've seen and own, Omkara, Maqbool  and The Blue Umbrella. With that sort of pedigree, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turned out.

There was a lot that I really liked about the film. Shabana Azmi positively revelled in her role as the absolutely amoral and corrupt Minister, hamming it up with a glee that reminded me of Alan Rickman's villains in Die Hard and the otherwise execrable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It seemed that Shabana got found added fun in role that saw her playing a character the exact opposite of her offscreen image. Pankaj was better acting than directing, another fine performance of a character with a speech impediment in a Bhardwaj movie. And Anushka seemed solid in a role that was a little like a rural version of Shruti from Band Baaja Baraat. Even Imran seemed marginally less wooden and vanilla than he usually does.

I really enjoyed the music, and the comedy. There were a lot of genuinely funny moments, even if I was the only person in the cinema who laughed when the Minister's spectacularly dullwitted son asked if it was a "tubelight" who revealed a key plot point. The scene where Matru and Harry "move" the well was comic genius, and one of the main reasons I am going to watch the film again. It was also a very rare treat to be part of an audience actively enjoying a Hindi film, not being stupefied into somnolence as by Mausam, or walking out in boredom as with Dabangg 2. 

 I also really loved the film's unabashed use of devanagari, as in the poster above. To see devanagari being used in everything from karaoke screens to cheques was a refreshing change from the rampant Anglicisation of Hindi films, and it was fun to read it to myself while  hearing a Panjabi audience member behind me reading it aloud for his friends who couldn't read it.

Despite all those good points the film fell short of my expectations. Like its main character it seemed schizophrenic, veering from being strong in its bizarrely comic surreal elements to being plodding in its sombre sermonising portions. Unlike its main character, whose altered states were a result of alcohol's presence or absence, the film never really explained or linked its two personalities. It was riddled with erratic inconsistencies, right down to Imran's "now you hear it, now you don't" accent, which even my very inexperienced ears caught repeatedly. The political sermonising was stodgy and as a subtle as a blow to the head, although not quite as much fun. The seamless blend of innocence, wonder and malice that Bhardwaj achieved in The Blue Umbrella was sadly very noticeable by it absence in this film.

Some reviewers have panned the film viciously, others have praised the movie to the skies, like my twitter friend and major league Shabana fan Carla, aka filmi geek . The diverse range of reactions seems apt for a such a split movie. For me, this film was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, a refreshing break from my history of only seeing stinkers on the bigscreen, and a provider of several good laughs. If only it had been given some internal coherence and a clear sense of its own identity, it could have been a great film. Instead, it was quite literally "not bad", and as praise goes, that's pretty damn faint.



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Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Pretty, Good Piece of Pi

The Life of Pi   Ang Lee


The first movie of the new year for me, this was better than I had expected, but not as good as it should have been. When I wrote my review of the book for last year's fiftyfiftyme challenge, I talked about my fears that the film would Disneyfy the story. It did, in a way, but not in the way that I expected. 

The major flaw with the film  is summed up in the tagline shown in the poster above.  It reads,   "BELIEVE THE UNBELIEVABLE", while other marketing describes it as "a film that will make you believe in God". The film replaces ambiguity and personal choice with crudely simplistic certainty. At one point In the film the narrator says to the adult Pi "You said the story would make me believe in God", and Pi replies, "Yes, that will come". He never says anything of the sort in the book. The character who tells the narrator about Pi says that, Pi does not. 

The book is all about the choice to believe or not to believe. Pi made a choice, and although it seems fairly clear that he encourages readers to make the same one, in the book that is all he does, encourage and suggest by implication. The book does not "make you believe in God" or order you to "believe the unbelievable". This dogmatism runs counter to the spirit of the book, and it's easy to see why many fans of the book were disappointed, some even angrily so, at what the film makers did. I was not angry, because I expected  something like this to happen. The nuance in the book was swept away in favour of the visual spectacle. 

The film did not do justice to the book's theme, but it certainly did to its imagery. Especially the 3D - simply stunning. Gorgeous and beautifully effective. There was an almost complete absence of gimmicky "in your face" 3D, instead the film's 3D added depth and believability to the imagery. It was a beautiful experience, easily as good as Hugo, the only other film I liked for its 3D. The film brought many of the images of the book to life with perfect faithfulness and in doing so, brought the book back to mind. I squirmed through scenes in the film that I squirmed through while reading. The CGI was equally superb. It may not have made anyone believe in God, but it was very easy to believe that Suraj Sharma as the young Pi was sharing a boat with a very real Bengal tiger. 

Another highlight of the film for me was the Indian presence. Suraj Sharma as the young Pi was very good, remarkably so for a debut performance. Watching him in this made me think about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and how much better that film could have been with an Indian actor playing the lead, rather than a British actor of Indian origin.  Irrfan did very well as the adult Pi too, although the simplification of the storyline wasted his talent a bit.The highlight of the casting for me was seeing Tabu back on screen.I'd completely forgotten she was in it, and was very excited when I saw her.  Her role was not large, but it was so good to see one of my favourite Indian actresses getting significant screen time again. 

 My sister-in-law said of the book after seeing the film "I will have to track it down. I've never been a book worm but it's such an incredible story". I hope that the film encourages people to make the same choice she did, because the book lets its readers make their own choice, in a way this visually rich and beautiful film did not.  

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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fiftyfiftyme: My Year in Films

For some masochistic reason, when I started the fiftyfiftyme challenge three months late, I made two decisions that now seem strange: I decided not to count any books read or films watched before I signed up to the challenge, and I decided to count only non-English movies. Had I not inflicted those handicaps on myself, my tally for both books and movies would have been well over fifty each. In the case of movies, it also meant excluding some of my favourite viewing of the year, including  Lola Versus, Damsels in Distress, Ruby Sparks, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Avengers, Moonrise Kingdom  and The Descendants.  Next year I'm counting every movie I watch, but only writing about the ones that matter to me.

The upside of my self-imposed restrictions was a broadening of my watching beyond just Hindi movies. My tally of fifty movies included: Eight French films, six Italian films and one each in Bengali and Arabic. The remaining thirty-four were Hindi films, keeping the primary focus I'd intended for this blog. From my viewing in 2012, here are my bouquets and brickbats:

BEST AND FAVOURITE FILMS
The thing that stands out for me from the Hindi films I watched this year is that the three which made the biggest impression and that I liked the most despite any quibbles I had with them, were all movies built around and for female leads. Of  the thirty-four Hindi films on my tally, by far the best were, Kahaani, Aiyyaa and English Vinglish. Three very different films, but all were star vehicles for their female leads, and it's hard to imagine other actors in their roles. It was a real delight to find that the three stand-out films for me all fitted into the theme of women in Indian cinema which kickstarted this blog,  thanks to the Adam's Rib  initiative arranged by Katherine Matthews of Totally Filmi. I hope there are plenty more strong, unashamedly female-driven films to come in the years ahead. Take it away, Rani!


Biggest Disappointment  of the Year
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I am constantly whining about how I never get to see Hindi films at the cinema. Well this year, I did get to see one at my local cinema, and it wins this award with ease. Dabangg2 was everything Dabangg wasn't, dull, with no spark and flat performances from everyone, except the criminally under-utilised Deepak Dobriyal. I am sadly building an impressive track record of  seeing only turkeys on the big screen.

Biggest Surprise of the Year
This award is shared by two films, Dabangg and Tere Ghar Ke Samne. Dabangg wins for surprising me by being a film in a genre I don't really like that I ended up loving anyway. Fun, vibrant, full of life and with catchy songs, the only complaint I have against it is that it made me excited to see its sequel. Tere Ghar Ke Samne wins for being a star vehicle for an actor whose persona I really dislike intensely, but who I loved in this film. How can anyone not love Dev in this?


Underrated Gem of the Year
Three films share this award, Paan Singh Tomar, Supermen of Malegaon and The Eclipse of Taregna. A dramatic biopic, a low-budget documentary about no-budget film-makers, and a beautifully crafted short film, the one thing they have in common is that they did not get the recognition and viewership they deserve. Irrfan's performance as the athlete-turned-bandit Tomar was very moving and credible, the enthusiasm and passion of the Malegaon moviemakers was uplifting, and the craftsmanship of the storytelling in Eclipse was remarkable.

Best Remake of the Year
This award goes to an Italian film that I got to see at the cinema, another rare treat. Benvenuti Al Sud was everything a remake should be. It was true to the original, even featuring Dany Boon in a cameo that I missed, yet still added something to the idea and made it fit with its new setting. A genuinely funny film, and a reminder that it is not an immutable law of the cosmos that remakes must be awful.

Those are the ten films that stood out for me from my fiftyfiftyme list, overall a very good year.  I look forward to seeing what 2013 has to offer. If it offers films as good as my top three, fiftyfiftyme  will be as rewarding as it was this year. More Sri Devi please!



Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie 50/50 Stanley Ka Dabba

Stanley Ka Dabba  Amole Gupte               fiftyfiftyme category: Major



The final film for my fiftyfiftyme challenge for 2012 was also the saddest. It was billed as sweet, and there was plenty of sweetness in it, but I spent most of the movie stunned into sadness bordering on tears.

 The story of a young orphan boy who excels at school but is victimised by a gluttonous teacher for not having a tiffin box he can steal from, Stanley ka dabba was a powerful reminder to me of just how alien India is to my my life experience. Watching a starving child being abused for writing with his left hand and for having no food, watching a depiction of teachers who work only by rote, I couldn't help being grateful for the accident of my birth in the First World, and deeply saddened by the world the movie showed.

The remarkable thing about this film is that although it infected me with a deep sadness, it bubbled with positivity and smiles. Even the very end, which I found as heartbreaking as the rest of the film, was presented as a happy ending. And it was, in the context of Stanley's world. The film does not pull any fairy godmothers out of its hat to magically give Stanley the sort of life that pampered, self-centred Westerners assume is normal for children. Instead, it shows a boy whose triumph is in finding his own happiness where he can, and then challenges its viewers to do something about the issue of child labour.

Made on a very low budget in careful conditions that avoided any child exploitation, this was an unsettling end to my filmi journey for 2012. Watching it on the day that the victim of a brutal gang rape in Delhi died in a Singapore hospital just served to emphasise that, in the immortal words of John Clarke, "we don't know how lucky we are, mate"
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Fiftyfiftyme: My Year in Books


I started blogging this year with the intention of only posting occasionally and only about subjects related to Indian cinema. The fiftyfiftyme challenge changed all that, and taught me a lot along the way. This excellent post makes a distinction between a blogger and a writer, and I'm definitely no writer. But I have found that blogging about the books I've read over the last 9 months has proved to be an excellent memory aid, a way to keep track of my progress through a challenge I wasn't sure I could meet. Now that I've met the challenge, it's time to savour my achievement by reflecting on the highlights.

FAVOURITE BOOK / BEST BOOK
There is no contest here. By far the favourite book I've read as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge was the biggest book I read, by far. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy was an amazing experience, and one of the reasons I'm most grateful to Katherine Matthews from Totally Filmi for mentioning the fiftyfiftyme challenge to me. The challenge provided just the spur I needed to finally get through this mammoth masterpiece. A treasure trove I look forward to revisiting.

REGIONAL WRITING
A Suitable Boy was also one of several books in my list that are set in or related to the subcontinent. The list includes not only my favourite book of the year, but one of the runners-up, the fascinating Life of Pi , a vivid examination of faith that I'm sure the movie will not do justice to. As if to balance the scales, the land of my fathers also supplied my most disappointing and least pleasurable  reading experience. I desperately wanted to like Midnight's Children, but its self-confessed delight in focusing on and revelling in ugliness, pain and misery made reading it a task to be endured, not enjoyed.

Apart from that bitter read, the rest of my subcontinental reading was a positive experience. From learning much more about the origin and evolution of Hindi-Urdu to a wonderful companion book for my favourite movie of all time, and the delightful return of one of my favourite fictional detectives, India supplied much of my favourite reading. So did the fabled island home of Raavan. A generous Twitter friend gifted me Chinaman, a serendipitous read in every sense of the word, spinning Cricket and Sri Lankan history into a moving and satisfying story.

FAVOURITE NON-FICTION
One of my goals in the challenge was to read five books about linguistics, but my favourite non-fiction read of the year was not one of them. It was a very close call between two exceptional books but in the end, the non-fiction book I enjoyed the most was Reza Aslan's No God But God. This examination of the history and development of Islam was both fascinating and sad, teaching me much I didn't know, and providing an insightful look into what happens when a faith becomes a religion.

The book that only just lost out was one that perhaps should have won. Michael King's History of New Zealand  is truly a must-read for anyone interested in these Shaky Isles. Written for the non-academic public but not dumbed down, reading it was an embarrassing education for me, one that made it obvious why so many New Zealanders have bought it, to finally understand our home better. It really was full of "stuff they didn't teach in school".

The only three things I lack to be a writer are in equal measure talent, imagination and discipline. Despite that, I love language and reading about language.  Every gifted producer needs eager consumers, and Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass  was a pleasure to devour, examining the chicken-and-egg  question of whether our perception influences our words or vice-versa.

FAVOURITE DISCOVERIES
One of the rules of the fiftyfiftyme challenge was that all books read must be first time reads to count. By the end of the year, I had come to love this rule. It made the challenge about discovering new authors and not about ticking off numbers. Sure some of the acclaimed classics, like Thoreau's Walden turned out to be as dull as dishwater and almost as tasty, but  the number of newly discovered authors I know I'll be returning to more than makes up for the duds.

The challenge of reading fifty books in nine months (thanks to a late start), meant that after the big books early on, I turned to shorter and lighter reads to make up the numbers. In doing so, I reconnected with two of my favourite genres, science fiction and mystery stories. Two authors I'd never read before are now firm favourites, John Scalzi for science fiction,  and Louise Penny for her Chief Inspector Gamache series of mystery novels. The pleasure I got from their works has filled me with anticipation for next year's fiftyfiftyme.

FAVOURITE FIVE
After looking back through my year's reading above, here are the books that I think are the stand-outs for me, the ones that made the biggest impression and that I enjoyed the most:

2. No God But God

3. The Life of Pi

4. The Penguin History of New Zealand

5. Bury Your Dead

To all the masochists who've waded through my waffle this year, thank you so very, very much, especially to those who've gone above and beyond by leaving comments. I am just a playwrite, but knowing that Google Translate's webcrawler hasn't been the only visitor is very gratifying. If anybody has discovered a new author or enjoyed a new book as a result of  reading my ramblings, then some good has come out of all the blather. To the wonderful @kaymatthews  profound thanks again for pointing me to the challenge, and to anybody thinking about trying a similar challenge next year, I conclude with the famous words of the ancient Greek God of sportswear: Just do it!