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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. Also, Vishal 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 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 big screen, 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.
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:
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!
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.
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?
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.
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!