Women Ahead of Their Time?

The inspiration for this post was a question that occurred to me toward the end of 2015: Are there any Korean films of the 60s and 70s that feature  strong women making their own choices in lead roles?

The Korean Dramas I watch almost all reflect the male-dominated, chauvinist hierarchy of traditional Korean society. The phrase “male-dominated, chauvinist hierarchy” applies with equal force to traditional Indian society too, which is precisely why the three films I’m briefly looking at here really stand out for me.

Two of these were made in the 60s, and the other  in the 70s. One I like,  I really like, one I really don’t. But all three seem almost anachronistic in their depiction of the female leads, hence the title of this post.

GUIDE (1965)

The blurb on my DVD of this film says that Waheeda was told she was committing professional suicide by taking the role of a woman who left her husband to pursue her dream of being a dancer, aided by her manager/lover.

It really was a remarkable story for 1965 India, and Waheeda made the role her own, with her dancing skills and nuanced portrayal of a woman’s journey of self-discovery,  coming to believe that she could choose to live her life on her terms.

TEESRI KASAM  (1966)

Another Waheeda starrer, this film has many similarities to Guide. Once again she plays a dancer living life on her own terms, or in this case on terms she has chosen to accept. In Guide Dev Anand’s character was initially her guide into independence, helping steer her to fame and fortune. In Teesri Kasam she has neither fame nor fortune, and the man who enters her life is no smooth-talking guide, but a very simple bullock cart driver.

What I love about this film is the way Waheeda’s Hirabai deals with the reality of her life. Others may see it as demeaning and sordid, but whatever, it is her  life, and she will be the one to accept or reject its constraints. She may not have been an empowered woman, but she was not powerless, and demonstrated that her dignity was her business, no one else’s

SEETA AUR GEETA (1972)

This film is named for the two female lead roles, only one of whom qualifies for consideration as an independent,self-assured woman.

Seeta is a meek, downtrodden Cinderella character, not unlike the Candy trope of East Asian Dramas.  Her  separated-at-birth identical twin sister Geeta on the other hand is a real gem. After the opening twenty minutes of the film establishing how miserable Seeta’s life is, Geeta’s introduction is a welcome change of mood. She enters singing “life’s a game” in the song above, and the rest of the film shows her keeping that spirit.

Geeta’s character shines for simply refusing to accept the kind of treatment her society and culture considered both normal and proper for women to receive. Confronted with routine physical and verbal abuse, degradation and oppression, she gives as good as she gets. Especially noteworthy is the climactic fight scene at the end, in which she is an active, vigorous participant. No demure heroine waiting to be rescued, she plays a major part in saving herself, and helping the hero.

Another thing these films have in common is that the actresses were both famous for their dancing skills. All three films reference the low esteem female dancers were held in, and it’s central to both Guide and Teesri Kasam.  Perhaps being part of a contemned (and often condemned) profession played a part in the characters’ resilience?

Like Waheeda and Hema, my bias  Wang Ji Won came to acting from dance. So did several other actresses I follow, including Han Ye Ri, whose major was in Korean traditional dance. Unlike Waheeda and Hema, I’ve never seen any of the Korean dancer-actresses I follow in a role involving dance in a truly significant way, though Ji Won played a ballerina in Fated To Love You. So now I have two questions:

First, are there any Korean films from the 60s or 70s that feature similarly independent, self-assertive women? Second, are there Korean films or Dramas about dancers or featuring dance prominently and starring actresses who are or were dancers? I look forward to your responses, gentle readers.

In Support Of The King 왕지원

저는 왕지원의 팬입니다

The phrase above is the background image for my Twitter profile.”I am a fan of Wang Ji Won”.  The use of the deferential form of “I” maybe grammatically incorrect, but the choice was very deliberate. This post is to celebrate her, and reflect on my experiences as an international fan.

As mentioned here, I started following Wang Ji Won a couple of years ago on Instagram. Her posts were pretty, cute and fun. At the time she was second lead in the drama I Need Romance 3. Many of her Instagram posts feature the cast of the drama having fun together, and I fell for her impish smile and ridiculously cute pout. But it was reading a translated interview in which she talked about her background that converted me into a hard-core fan.

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Learning that she had spent 17 years devoted to ballet, including attending the Royal School of Ballet and earning a place with the Korea National Ballet before a pelvic fracture put her in a wheelchair for six months and ended her ballet career gave me a new perspective on this young woman. It showed that behind her cute, funny, impish smile was a character of determination, diligence and drive, someone who could still exude fun after having her life’s dream taken away. The trajectory of her post-ballet career has further demonstrated  those characteristics.

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Becoming proficient at ballet requires years of practice, lots of intensive physical exercise and sheer hard work, with a lot of pain. It has been similar for Wang Ji Won in her career as an actress. She started modelling and doing some advertising work around the time she was with the Korea National Ballet. Some of her earliest commercials also provide an excellent example of the depth of my fanboy’s commitment. They feature an actor of almost legendary fame, whom I have never seen in anything other than those commercials. So when people talk about him, he is to me “that guy who was with Wang Ji Won in those ads”.

 

Her first drama role was in the 120 episode Shut Up Family in 2012 . I watched this drama a few months ago to complete her canon, and recorded the time and duration of every one of her scenes in the entire drama. Following Shut Up Family, her next drama was the 2013 Good Doctor, which happened to be the first drama I watched while it was airing. After that came a very brief cameo in the mega smash hit The Heirs before she secured her first second lead in I Need Romance 3. One of her closest Korean fans recently said something like “don’t worry she’s not Oh Se Ryeong (her character in INR3)” I smiled and thought “but I like Se Ryeong”. And I did. The best friends to frenemies to best friends again arc was well executed by Wang Ji Won and the lead Kim So Yeon.

In 2014, Wang Ji Won got her first lead role in the web drama Another Parting . Effectively an hour-long MV for the eponymous title track, Another Parting was another step forward in her career, especially thanks to her high profile male lead Seo In Guk. It also featured a scene that made my blood boil when I learned later it was filmed in -9°C!

After Another Parting, her next second lead was a role that got me really excited. It was a remake of the Taiwanese drama Fated to Love You. I hated that drama, including its female second, who deliberately caused the lead to miscarry. The second lead character in the drama was a ballet dancer, but sadly the actress playing that character in the Taiwanese drama had no experience in ballet and was not a very good actor. So I was super excited when my ballerina bias scored the role in the Korean remake. Seeing her dance again even briefly remains a highlight of the drama for me. That her character was significantly less awful than in the Taiwanese original was a nice bonus.

Her next drama role was in 2015 as second lead in Divorce Lawyer in Love. I will be polite and describe the drama as underwhelming. As a very committed fan, I was hugely disappointed at the way her character’s role faded in significance and screen time in the last half of the drama, to the point where she was effectively absent. Nevertheless, the drama did give me many treasured memories of my beautiful bias looking very beautiful.

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In a recent interview for her first cover article in a magazine, Wang Ji Won mentioned (according to Google translate) that 2015 was a bit of a slump year for her. I found that candour endearing. Happily 2016 has been much better . Not only her first magazine cover but a short web drama that was effectively all about her, Immortal Goddess. These however are the appetisers for what makes 2016 a very special year for Wang Ji Won and her fans. She completed filming this year on her very first film role , a con artist caper film with Im Si Wan , One Line. It hasn’t come out yet, but when it does, this fan boy will be raving, again.

This brief recap of her career showcases her focus and determination. She has worked her way up slowly, from commercials to small parts on to 2nd leads and web dramas and now to a movie role. She has candidly acknowledged the role luck has played, but she’s also seized the opportunities presented and made the most of them. And it has not all been smooth sailing.

The same social media that cemented my attachment to her as a fan also caused her significant pain. She suffered serious verbal abuse from people who refuse to recognise that public performers are entitled to private lives. Performers need to a space to perform, and they need an audience.  Social media interactions provide both. Sadly some mean-spirited people attacked her repeatedly over a long period of time, to the point where she withdrew from social media. That low point in her public life also taught me the truth of the adage “never say never”

When I started getting into Korean dramas, I could not understand why fans would send expensive gifts to their biases, who obviously have a lot more money than their fans. Yet last year, when I learned the extent and nature of the abuse that Wang Ji Won was suffering from unkind people, I was moved to respond by sending a fan gift. Not solely as a fan, but  primarily as someone who wanted to express sympathy. That fan gift mission turned into quite a saga itself, with its own ups and downs and crises,(and even its own playlist) but in the end I got what every fan craves, acknowledgement from my bias. Since then, as her career has continued its upward arc, I have contributed to fan gifts on two further occasions. Never say “never”!

Being a hard-core fan of an actor with a lower profile has its advantages. Her fan base is not that large at the moment, so she interacts with many of them. For a few months, she even followed me on Instagram. This was, of course, the highlight of my social media existence. Any performer’s public social media presence is in large part about performance, publicity and promotion. No one shows all of themselves on SNS, and not for a minute do I think that Ji Won’s  public SNS shows all of her, but it what it does show, I like. Her interactions with her Korean fans on Instagram always present the same picture – that of a warm, friendly and genuinely fun young woman, who enjoys chatting with her peers. From her unobtrusive fondness for her cat, whom she rescued from a freeway, to her unfeigned anguish at being almost 30 (Korean age) and her constant willingness to simply goof off, there is nothing not to like. If I had a ₩ for every ㅋㅋㅋ in her comments and replies, I could afford to learn Korean in Korea. Which would certainly make my fan life a whole lot simpler.

There is a clip from Sesame Street I’m fond of using to express my relationship with the rest of Wang Ji Won’s fandom. The overwhelming majority of her fans are Korean, female, and under 30. I am emphatically none of those things. I cannot speak Korean, can barely read Hangul, and live 13,000 km away, in addition to being more than 20 years older than my bias and the majority of her fans. Despite all this, I have been made to feel very welcome as part of her fandom.

I am especially indebted to the fan who has the closest connection to Wang Ji Won. For her star, this young woman is a truly devoted fan, a friend, and a fierce protector. Their exchanges on SNS are always a joy to read, even through machine translation, good natured banter between friends. This fan has a fan in me. Despite already spending countless hours producing beautiful fan vids, and constantly being on guard  to shield Ji Won’s SNS from those who wish her ill, she has shown extraordinary patience and helpfulness in facilitating my fandom by sharing information with me and translating it for me. Her tireless loyalty is worthy of its own tribute. I have been deeply moved by her willingness to offer me the opportunity to participate in fan events, even when the realities of distance, differing timezones and my  lack of Korean eventually precluded my participation.

The title of this tribute is a dig at Google Translate. The name “Ji Won” is not uncommon among Korean actresses, but Wang Ji Won is the ONLY one whose name Google refuses to treat as such, instead translating her name as words. With her star seeming to be on the rise, I hope to see this change soon. All the signs are that this beautiful,  hard-working, talented, determined and beautiful young woman is starting to reap the rewards due her effort. I’m sure that in the not too distant future, many more, including Google, will know her name. When that time comes, and she shines to others as the star she already is to me, I will be cheering and clapping and smiling.

It’s every fan’s dream to meet their bias, of course, even when we know it won’t happen. Aotearoa is so far away from anywhere it famously doesn’t even show up on many maps. And my little corner of this little country is off the tourist track (except for wine buffs). So when I see photos of  my bias meeting fans, I feel very, very happy for them, and just a tiny bit wistful.

If the unimaginably improbable happened and I did meet Wang Ji Won, what would I say?

“감사합니다! 진짜 , 정말, 감사합니다!” ” Thank you for sharing your talent, grace and beauty.” “Thank you for making me smile and gush. Thank you for keeping the teenager in me alive and well.”  “Thank you for being a good person.”

As I watch this lovely young woman’s career from afar, I will continue to be proud to say, “I’m her fan” And when she’s the big name star she deserves to be, I’ll still keep treasuring  the words and images of a young woman who loves iced Americanos from Starbucks (sigh!), who gushes like a teenage fangirl over her favourite Dramas and anime, who rescues stray cats, who has kind words for strange old fans far away, and who has a smile and a pout that no tribute can do justice to. There may be many Jiwons, but for me, there can be only !

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

“Last updated April 2013” – tempes really DOES fugit! So why am I revivifying this moribund blog, other than as an excuse to use words like revivifying? Because the time is right. I don’t really like goodbyes, which is one reason why I chose the song above – the lyrics are perfect, and it’s from a film that I REALLY, REALLY  dislike. An apt summary of the reasons this blog went to sleep.

I started this blog primarily to write about my reaction to Hindi films. I still love OLD Hindi films, but as the big mainstream releases moved further and further from my tastes, I found my enthusiasm waning. In the nearly three years since I last updated this blog, I’ve seen only two Hindi films during their cinematic runs, PK (an OK if slightly preachy Aamir vehicle) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (a brazenly manipulative Sallu tearjerker that worked), and caught up with only a few smaller films post-release, most notably The Lunchbox and Patang. both of which I thoroughly enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend.

As my interest in current Hindi films waned, so did my already fragile motivation for bloviating about them. Thus did this blog end on an aptly funereal note, with the last post being a tribute to a  favourite female singer of yesteryear, Shamshad Begum.  Except it turned out that it wasn’t quite dead, just pining for the fjords.

It was reading a spate of “year end” blogs that sparked the urge to blow the cobwebs off this old Frankenblog and see if it still worked. I needed somewhere to celebrate my new consuming enthusiasm. East Asian Drama,  and the incredible people I follow on Twitter who have enriched the experience so much.

Within two weeks of writing the last post here, I watched my first ever K Drama. That count now stands at 124, along with 16 Taiwanese Dramas, 3 Chinese and 15 Japanese, plus 14 K Dramas dropped at varying stages. I’m an unashamed addict! I’m also a real fan boy, stretching that last word rather more than nature intended. I’m a fan of East Asian Dramas, but I’m an even bigger fan of the amazing Asiaphiles I follow on Twitter. This blog post is really for them.

Asian entertainment fandom has its fair share (he coughed euphemistically) of irrational obsessive fans who act like children, regardless of their age. Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, no one I follow is anything like that. Everyone I follow is intelligent, thoughtful and mature. The diversity of ages and backgrounds and biases is broad, as is the range of tastes and preferences in Dramas and music. On my Twitter feed are people with very different tastes in both performance and performers. Yet the spirit remains one of fun mostly, and civility always. Whenever discussions shift from lighthearted banter to serious exchanges of differing views, the conversations never become nasty, even when very vigorous disagreements are being aired.

Above all, this outstanding group of people taught me to “just let it go”, to remember that entertainment should be entertaining, and that there’s no need to rain hate on someone else’s parade. OTT ranting can be fun, but friendly banter is even more fun, and much less tiring. To the many exceptional women and tiny group of Most Unusual  men who’ve educated, entertained, and enlightened me,  y’all know who you are and all y’all are 대박, 진짜 대박, take a bow!

When I first stumbled into the Wonderland of an adults-only corner of K-ent Twitter, many (read: almost all) of my mentors prophesied that my obsession with K Dramas would lead inevitably to a slide down the rabbit hole of K-Pop, I scoffed and said the word one should never say. Never.

This year saw me fall hard for Mamamoo. I would seriously love to see them perform live, even though I’d be the ultimate outlier, demographically.  I’ve also stopped pretending that my interest in KPop stops at Davichi, and now accept that liking many songs from Girl’s Generation , T-Ara, Red Velvet and others means I’m more of a sitting duck than a standing egg.

Giving in to K-Pop was not the only noteworthy event in my fanboy life this year though. I got to actually talk to Nandita Das – a very  brief and prosaic exchange, but still! Later in the year, I did something else I never expected to do, and sent a fan gift. That turned into quite an adventure, full of laughs, frustrations and misunderstandings. It turns out that being fond of wryly self-deprecating wordplay in English is, er, let’s say, sub-optimal for maintaining clear communication with non-native speakers. Despite the hiccups along the way, when my very own “K-Drama” ended with me being called “my lovely fan”, the facade of adulthood was completely melted away from the gobstruck, hyperventilating, utterly incoherent adolescent fanboy within.

I also dabbled in blogging thanks to the generosity and tolerance of the excellent women at Couch+Kimchi.  It was fun sharing my views on K Drama, and now that I know many of them are Bollywood fans I might even see if they’ll let me back for a post about my first Asian addiction.

Another discovery this year was that someone whose writing I admire is also a  K Drama fan. Madhulika Liddle not only writes with skill and passion about pre-1970s Hindi films, she writes thoroughly absorbing and meticulously researched historical mysteries set in Mughal Delhi. To have been able to share a mutual fondness for K Drama with a real writer was an unexpected delight. If anyone reading this likes historical fiction, crime fiction, India, or any combination thereof, do yourself a favour and read her books, all of them!

What am I looking forward to in 2016? More thoughtful, fun fan exchanges on Twitter, more  K Dramas, more K-Pop and more time being a VERY happy harabeoji. It’s also the year when I find myself with no choice but to master at least enough Korean to follow the gist of a movie without subtitles, since Made In China isn’t going to get subbed any time soon. I  hope too that everyone who actually read all of this finds MUCH better ways to spend their time in the new year. May 2016 be everything you wish for and more, and for every single person I interact with on Twitter, this one’s for you:

 

 

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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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.

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.

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.

Maati Maay

Maati Maay   Chitra Palekar                fiftyfiftyme 2013: Other

15_25_16_vcd maati maye

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

Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola  Vishal Bhardwaj             fiftyfiftyme 2013: Major

 

mkb

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.

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.