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.


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


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.

Every Rose Has Its Thorns

This piece is a summary of my reaction to my first Pakistani drama, Zindagi Gulzar Hai. The title is usually translated “Life is a Garden” but the first half in particular was such a painful watch that I couldn’t help thinking of thorns.
My favourite film ever is Pyaasa, and one of the main reasons I love it is the artistry of the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi who wrote the lyrics for the film’s songs. Watching this drama had me singing one line from one of those songs over and over again, “Hamne toh jab kaliyaan maangi kaanton kaa haar mila” – “Whenever I asked for flowers, I received a crown[1] of thorns”. Here are the flowers and the thorns I found in Zindagi Gulzar Hai.


The language

I love the sound of Urdu. After Italian, it’s probably my second favourite  language in terms of aural aesthetics. I love the blend of Indic structures and Persian/Arabic vocabulary that makes it both familiar and different. And, although I can’t read it  I simply adore its beautiful script, as in the Drama’s title above. It was a delight to enhance my Urdu vocabulary by watching it with  subtitles so that I could learn the Urdu equivalents of familiar Hindi words, while getting more from the dialogues than subtitles alone can give.  If I watch another Pakistani Drama, it will be primarily a learning experience, like this one was.



The female lead was without question the Drama’s rose. Appropriately prickly, she was a great character. Intelligent, independent, hard-working, stubborn, pessimistic, angry  and slow to both trust and forgive, she was a well-rounded, believable and likeable human being.   She worked tirelessly to support her Mother and her younger sisters, and her fierce self-reliance was a delight to watch. She was also incredibly self-righteous and short-tempered. No perfect “Candy” here, that’s for sure.

I also really liked her Mother and sisters.  Rafiya was a great role model as a woman and a mother. Abandoned by her husband for bearing only daughters, she set her three girls an example they all followed in the value of education and self-reliance. She also demonstrated (for the most part) great deftness in negotiating the tricky waters of life as an independent working mother in a VERY male-dominated society.  Which brings me to



The picture above nicely captures my reaction to at least 60% of this character’s screentime. Reviews of the Drama describe him with words phrases such as  “charismatic”, flirty yet sensible” and other similarly complimentary terms. I would describe him as arrogant, hypocritical and rage-inducingly chauvinist.

For the first fourteen of the Drama’s twenty-six episodes he was breathtakingly awful. So astonishingly brazen and unashamed of his hypocritical misogyny it left me speechless. His attitudes on the roles and rights of men and women made the cartoon stereotype of the hair-pulling troglodyte seem rabidly liberal.

This character insisted that he was always right in everything because of being male, and that he had the right to bully, harass and abuse the female lead because she wasn’t.  A systematic campaign of deception and degradation was not only OK, it was the right and proper thing for him to do, because she was committing the unforgivable sin of not acknowledging his innate, all-encompassing superiority.

If I hated the character so much, why did I stick it out? Because of my experience with East Asian Dramas. I’m used to the trope of a jerk lead growing and becoming a better person, often “transformed” by the power of the female lead’s love.  So while ranting and cursing and filling my Twitter with ragetweets about what a contemptible chauvinist he was, I was also expecting to see some character development. I assumed he would grow into something resembling a reasonable, moderate human being. I was wrong.  Over the 26 episodes of the Drama, his character DID  move forward, but he did so  less than any continental shelf did in the same time period.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this was in the climactic conflict between the two leads. He went ballistic with rage at finding out that she had been proposed to by someone else, and never apologised for his astonishing reaction, even when others pointed out that her rejecting that proposal and accepting his should have made him happy.  He then  proceeded to start secretly texting and even meeting up with his own ex-fiancee. To the end, he insisted there was nothing wrong with this, and that his double standards about what was acceptable were right and proper because he’s a man. In the end, predictably, his wife Kashaf gave in. Contrary to the show’s intentions, I did not  find this to be a happy ending.

As bad as I found his character to be, I do not fault the writing. Someone on my Twitter timeline said watching the Drama was informative, and I tried to keep that point of view.  Pakistan is a religiously and socially conservative country, and the attitudes of the male lead always seemed authentic. Even while I found his words and actions repellent, I knew they were credible. I also applauded the writer(s) for the depth of the female characters. Kashaf’s Mum  was another good example of this. Besides the strong points I highlighted earlier, she was shown as having a fundamental weakness, an inability to say no to the husband who abandoned her, even when he asked her to take in the son he left her to have!

I also salute the writers for the way they integrated the presumably mandated religious content. With the exception of the closing scenes which were accompanied by direct sermons of praise from both leads, the integration of Islamic culture and theology into the Drama seemed organic and believable for the modern day . Right down to the presentation of the lead as someone who saw the inside of a mosque only a couple of times a year.

In summary, this garden had plenty of beauty in the cast, and plenty of pain in the characters. I loved the sound of the words even when I hated their content. I learned more about a country and culture I really should know more of, and I (hopefully) amused my Twitter timeline with my ragetweets. If you’re looking for something different in the way of Dramas, check this one out and see if you find more roses than thorns. For reading this all the way through, shukriya, Khuda hafiz!



  1. [1]“haar” is “necklace” or “garland” but given the amount of Christ references in the film’s imagery, “crown” seems to fit here

Owl Be Back

A few days ago I was called close-minded, for having no interest at all in historical dramas. My initial reaction was to feel insulted and offended. It is, after all, hardly a designation many would treasure. The offence quickly morphed into amusement that something as trivial as a difference in entertainment tastes could be seen as evidence of close-mindedness.

It was also, as the saying goes, “funny ‘cos it’s true” – when it comes to the world of Asian dramas I am an extreme outlier more often than not. Period dramas bore me rigid, and with almost no exceptions, I am utterly uninterested in the aesthetic appeal of male actors. A podcast urging its listeners “not to be THAT noona” further drove home to me my position outside the mainstream of Asian entertainment consumers. Not simply because it is not biologically possible for me to be any sort of noona without major surgery, but also because the podcast was mostly about KPop, another field of entertainment which generally leaves me  underwhelmed.

I may not care about historical dramas at all, or about KPop very much (Mamamoo excepted), but it is always a joy to hear from those who do. Listening to people talk about the things that interest them enlightens and delights me. I have a physical intolerance to alcohol, but love listening to my sommelier best friend talk at length about the wines which are his world. I have a degenerative disability, but always really enjoy listening to a young friend talk about her work as a personal trainer and about her surfing. Reading tweets and blog posts from people waxing lyrical about the things which excite them and stir their passion always makes me smile. As I was composing this I thought of the group EXID, and especially Hani. I feel like I know something about her, and of their music, thanks to the devoted commitment of one of my Twitter followers. Her tireless efforts to share her fandom have made sure that whenever I think about EXID, I feel good (Sorry Emily!)

Thus, reflecting on the pleasure I get from reading and learning about other’s passions, I’ve decided that when it comes to the muddled, contradictory, senescent voices in my own head , I’m going to follow the old advice : “What say they? Let them say.” The adage “blog like no one is reading” is close to being the literal truth in my case. That not even spammers visit is actually liberating. As with my very lengthy tribute to a drama  (almost) no one watched, I will rave about what I want to rave about, and, on the rare occasions when I care enough to overcome my aversion to the effort needed, I will rant about what I want to rant about. I’ll indulge my obsession with multilingual wordplay, even when much of the (putative) audience won’t get it, as in the owl theme on this blog. Anyone who does read this can expect to find my support for a former ballerina to feature prominently and for South Asian (or more specifically, North Indian) films to once again be bloviation fodder. Noho ora mai rā.

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:



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”.


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:



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