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Posts Tagged ‘bollywood’

Film Review: Incarnations

Posted by anandrr on January 2, 2010

Avatar is the unfortunate consequence of taking a large dose of white liberal guilt and adding half a billion dollars overseen by a master of visual style who couldn’t write to save his life. The story deals with humans out to plunder a new found utopia (named Pandora) that is full of a great new mineral, Unobtainium. This name is announced to us very early in the movie, perhaps we are to realize now that Cameron doesn’t really enjoy writing so we should give up now and just sit back and take in the luscious special effects. But this is a long film, and we movie watchers do not live by special effects alone. You cannot help but hear nails on the blackboard every time you hear people say the word with reverence, “Unobtainium!”

The “avatar” in the movie refers to a trance-like state that humans enter when they are asked to “drive” laboratory-made specimens of Pandora’s native people. When they enter this trance, their avatar wakes up and “lives” in the “outside world,” when the avatar goes to sleep, the humans wake up out of the trance and live in the “real world” inside the lab. Pandora is a beautiful world full of lush greenery, wonderful animals, pretty blue people, and plants and trees that are all connected to each other via their roots. It is a wonderfully imagined world in which one can lose oneself, one imagines repeated watchings of the movie would reveal new rich detail that one had previously missed, the effort that went into the design of this world is obvious. The viewer is easily lost in this beauty, almost trance-like one might say, until he hears a clunker of a line and is jarred back into the harsh reality of an especially poorly written Hollywood blockbuster.

We recommend that this movie be watched in Imax 3-D, preferably with the sound turned off. As a spectacle this movie has no peers. It reminded us of the first time we watched Toy Story, or the Matrix, or even, Terminator 2, each of those times we left the movie theater feeling as if we had just participated in a very moving experience, but even those movies are not a scratch on Avatar’s beauty. With a less obvious plot and better writing, Avatar could have made our list of greatest movies of the decade, as it is, it makes the grade of movies that must be watched, but once only.

Many people have written quite eloquently about the obvious anti-imperialist white-guilt message of the movie. We have but one thing to add. Not all societies plundered by the white man were like the native Americans. That is all.

Sita Sings the Blues is available for high quality download on a Creative Commons license on the film maker’s website. In a world of poor-quality torrents downloaded by eager yet thrifty flat-screen-TV-owning movie buffs, that alone would qualify it for a dekko. Of all the characters in the Ramayana, Sita cuts the most tragic figure. She loves deeply and is married to God-incarnate, the most just and pious man as well as one of the greatest archers in the history of the universe, and yet she is always forsaken by Rama, until she finally takes matters into her own hands and leaves him (and the Earth) forever. This movie is dedicated to telling Sita’s story, as a universal story of womanhood. The movie is animated by Nina Paley who inserts her own story in parallel, one of having her heart broken by a man who leaves her for good when he gets a job in India. The animation is of varying quality, sometimes it is represented by Mughal-era and other ancient Indian paintings speaking the lines of Rama, Sita and so on, sometimes in crude drawings of a South Park like quality, and at other times by an impossibly curvy Sita and equally impossibly muscular Rama doing their Bollywood-inspired movie singing to the backing blues-vocals of Annette Hanshaw. But at all times the animation works. All along, the story of Sita (and Rama and the rest of the Ramayana cast) is told by apparently India-born youth trying to recollect as best as they can the story of the Ramayana, interspersed with musings on a childhood story by adults as they try to mine hidden-depths and back-stories of an ill-remembered epic. A certain irreverence pervades the movie, but it never descends to crude parody or atheistic preaching. Mostly it sounds like the story of the Ramayana as would be discussed by Indian youth today when they are sure their parents are out of earshot. The movie comes with an incredibly beautiful soundtrack. Almost all the songs are by Annette Hanshaw whose turn of the early-20th-century songs seem to have been written precisely for use in this movie. One of those that are not by her, the Rama-praising song sung by Lava and Kusha is comedic genius. We hummed it for days afterward.

For those of us of a certain age, the Channel-V promotions featuring Quick Gun Murugan hold a special place in our hearts. The 30-second parodies of Westerns, Rajnikanth, and south Indians in general made in the service of our MTV variant captured perfectly the adolescent zeitgeist of early 90s India. We were very excited when Quick Gun the movie was released and finally got a chance to watch it recently. The film delivers on every count: as a rich parody of Tamil and other South Indian films, as a parody of Westerns and most of all as a way to lose yourself for an hour and a half in well written and almost always well executed comedy. Dr Rajendra Prasad is brilliant as Quick Gun Murugan, he even manages to parody himself very effectively. Both Sita and Quick Gun are well-timed reminders that one does not need a lot of money to make a great movie just good writing, good acting, and a lot of imagination.

Posted in Films, Reviews, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Film Review: Kanchivaram

Posted by anandrr on March 25, 2009

I first watched a Priyadarshan movie when I watched Kilukkam back when I was a young college-going lad. My room mate had convinced us Bangaloreans that this was an awesome movie and took us. Kilukkam was quite a revelation, it was funny, it was extremely well made, it had a good story and plot, and finally it looked different. Kilukkam looks most like a Mani Ratnam movie, but that is not giving Kilukkam enough credit. The Mani Ratnam look of course refers to the generally dark, back-lit/side-lit cinematography that lends the movie a sensual look. But the difference is that Kilukkam was shot in Ooty, and the director did use that to his advantage by framing the shots to include the green beauty of that fine hill-town. It also helped that Ooty is a generally foggy city, see earlier note about lowered lighting in the shots. Kilukkam was also that rarest of Indian movies: a comedy feast. Historically, Indian comedies may be classified into: i) Movies that are tight, intelligent comic movies, they start as comedies, stay that way, and end that way. These are rare. Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to pull it off quite consistently in the 70s. This has recently come into vogue again, now that movies are not afraid to last two hours or less. ii) Movies that start with a comic premise, but quickly morph into a drama/tragedy/something else equally abhorrent. These are sadly quite prevalent. A subset of this type of movie is of the Chandni Chowk to China variety. Movies that could be good comedies if only they had had the sense to hire an editor and snip out the middle 1.5 hours. iii) Movies that are indeed comedies through and through, or would be if they were actually funny. This includes movies that at first blush might appear to belong in the first category. Two Kamalhassan movies illustrate this dichotomy nicely. Pushpak, that landmark silent movie of the 1980s today appears to be a movie with an interesting gimmick but a very poor, cringe-inducing comic style, firmly in the third category. Michael Madana Kama Rajan, the quadruple-role Kamal feast, on the other hand seems to belong to the first variety. All in all, I had marked Priyadarshan as a director to watch. Soon after, I left India for foreign shores and didn’t really follow his work. I was therefore quite pleased when I saw that The Asian Film Festival in San Francisco last weekend screened Priyadarshan’s latest effort, Kanchivaram.

Kanchivaram is a set in the mid-late 1940s in the Tamilnadu town of Kanchivaram. The town is the origin of the famous Kanchivaram silk sarees, intricate hand woven sarees of such incredible beauty, woven by artisans who are so poor that they cannot afford their own creations, indeed have probably never seen their sarees worn by anyone. They work for the local landlord who owns the means of production, and naturally this sets the stage for a gradual awakening of Communist spirit among the weavers. The story deals specifically with one weaver who wishes that by the time his newborn daughter is of marriageable age, he will be able to marry her off in a silk saree. This is is an admirable pursuit in one so poor of course, but the futility of a poor person’s existence in India will grind him down, it is really only a matter of time. No Slumdog Millionaire this, there are no fairy tale endings to be had. The system is stacked against a simple poor weaver, and he has to fight it every step of the way. Communism makes its appearance via an idealistic writer, but pre-war Britain banned Communism, and eventually even Communism can’t help, it is but an ideology. Ideologies can’t put food on the table. Very quickly, idealistic communist protestors turn into run-of-the-mill politicians and yet another source of hope disappears. Hope keeps springing eternal, but reality catches up very quickly eventually leading to a heart-rending dénouement. As Slumdog would say, “It is written.”

Don’t let all of this get you down, the story is outstanding: it has all the right touches to make it incredibly real and it is very well edited to tell that story tightly. This is also the best looking movie I’ve seen in a long time. It isn’t just the back-lit/side-lit scenes that are enjoyable, there are many deep-focus shots of the kind I haven’t seen in a long time. When he turns these on, the scene just pops like on a digital hi-def screen, and the collective audience’s jaw drops. The Kanchivaram village doesn’t just look lovely, it looks like an Incredible India tourist brochure come alive.

A Western audience might find a couple quibbles with the movie. The lone “British” businessman speaks an English that is painfully un-British, indeed un-anything, but one imagines that if he spoke perfectly, it would make him very hard to follow for a Tamil audience. Also the San Francisco audience that I watched this with twittered quite audibly when the Communist sickle made its appearance, this might be camp for an American audience, but the rest of us know that it is indeed quite real.

As I left the movie theater (Castro theater, about which a word, I had no idea the ceiling had all these lovely Indian/Asian motif paintings), I felt like I’d seen the best movie I’ll see all year.

Posted in Films, Politics, Reviews, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

And the Oscar For the Most Ungracious Acceptance Goes To

Posted by anandrr on February 23, 2009

Danny Boyle, for not mentioning any of his cast members who surely helped him direct the movie and get it done (not least his Co-Director)?

Posted in Capitalism, Culture, Films, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Book Review: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Posted by anandrr on January 27, 2009

My relationship with Vikram Chandra goes way back. Back when he was a young novelist who had just completed his debut novel and I a callow youth, I read about Red Earth and Pouring Rain and knew that I had to read it. Unfortunately I was but a college student low on funds, so I had to wait around until I won a gift certificate to the local book store and then I pounced. My expectations were sky high, the reviews had been glowing, they were sent higher still by the fact that I was spending precious book store gift coupon currency for which I had had to win an inter-college quiz competition or some such and they were sent into the stratosphere by the fact that I count among my prized possessions a copy of the Panchatantra (translated by Ryder) gifted to my brother and I by our parents and that translation of the Panchatantra had taught me that the Amar Chitra Katha variant of the Panchatantra was a sham, a mere trifle, and the Panchatantra far from being a mere Indian version of Aesop’s fables were much much more, a massive work of art and literature. From those sky high expectations, there was only one direction: down. And Red Earth disappointed me. It had started off strong, I had loved the way it moved, but somewhere along the way he lost me and I lost him. And that was that as far as Chandra and I were concerned.

Until 2007, when he wrote Sacred Games. This time I had a secret weapon. Bookmarks magazine (Bookmarks review of Sacred Games) gets truck-loads of books every year and surely this had to be among them. It was, and I was saved. Risk-free Vikram Chandra enjoyment. I started in on it right away, but my return to India interrupted my reading. At 900 pages, a hardbound edition took up too much valuable space and weight to make the top list of things that returned with me. So it sat (marked at page 150 or so by a sad letter from State Farm telling me that it was my fault not their customer’s that my car had a dent (it was entirely his fault, you jerks, and you can’t even spell my name right, so what kind of investigation did you do anyway?)) in storage patiently awaiting its turn. Which turn came on my last trip stateside, so as soon as I was done with our new President, I was ready to continue where I left off.

Sacred Games appears to be a companion volume to Maximum City. But that is doing Maximum City too many favours, and Sacred Games a grave disservice. Games is the book that Maximum City should have been, indeed could have been, but thank God for Games, it does Bombay credit. Chandra is still playing with form, half the book moves forward in time, the other half is told in flashback by a man who kills himself in the first chapter, both stories moving forwards of course, but interwoven beautifully without making it seem like a gimmick, and there are insets: little bits of back story, seemingly without much relevance to the story, a little gimmicky but you sense Tarantino beaming in approval.

Ganesh Gaitonde is the mafia don found dead, of apparent suicide, early in the book by police inspector Sartaj Singh (whom Gaitonde has called to his hideout), this death precipitated by Singh’s decision to take Gaitonde’s nuclear-bunker-like building by force. The rest of the book chronicles the story of Gaitonde’s rise from a small-time assistant on a smuggling boat to the man who runs the G-company, Bombay’s biggest mob. This is the first thread, narrated by an omniscient Gaitonde in first person. The second thread is a police procedural as it follows Singh, an unambitious cop in Bombay, investigate Gaitonde’s death (and that of a woman found dead with him) and why he was in the bunker. The investigation is mostly above his pay-grade, there are forces operating here over which he has no control and sometimes even less understanding, but he is diligent and eventually ends up wanting to do the right thing.

Gaitonde appears truthful to a fault, a dead man has nothing to lose; Singh has his vices, he is not above an occasional bribe, and will happily beat up innocent people if it will further his investigation. But between the two of them, Chandra has written up a terrific piece, L.A. Confidential can suck it. It has the grandeur of an epic: the partition and the Indo-China war get a look-in as do the ’93 Bombay riots. It has the elements of a pot-boiler: plenty of sex via aspiring Bollywood starlets, plenty of blood, and sudden and incongruous twists that suddenly tie up loose ends. Religious tensions simmer, the ISI is of course involved, and a sadhu does the Indian rope trick. But like a well-made Bollywood thriller (ha!), when Bombay is your backdrop anything will work!

Every story about Bombay (shout out to Slumdog), has to revel in its extremes and Games gets it just right. But the other finely calibrated thing in Games is the language. When Rushdie writes, he captures a certain English that belongs to the English-speaking classes of India, a Hinglish that is not so much a mixture of Hindi and English as a direct translation from Hindi. When we speak informally among brothers and cousins we affect an English that traslates directly from our mother tongue and yields a language at once funny and inventive, the language comes alive as you listen to it. Chandra goes in a different direction, but it is just as effective. He is also translating, but not with a wink and a nudge, but quite truthfully. And the untranslateable words are, well, not translated. The result is that as you read, you can hear the characters say it in the original Bambaiya Hindi down to the mandatory curse word.

The book isn’t unputdownable: both its size and scope demand that you put it down every now and then and take a rest. From the way the flow sometimes ebbs, one senses that Chandra did the same as he wrote it. And it does have a fault: I was promised the end of the world in the last chapter, I did not get it, what’s worse some villains got their just desserts at the end but by handling that backstage, the climax left one feeling a little limp.

Posted in Book Review, English, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Book Review: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

Posted by anandrr on January 3, 2009

I first visited Bombay as a young teenager, and it was a case of love at first sight. There is an energy to Bombay that other Indian cities can only aspire to, indeed the only other city anywhere that seems to have a similar energy is New York. There were many other things that were unique and lovable about the city: it never seemed to sleep, people were going about their business and shops and restaurants seemed to stay open late late in to the night; the people I was visiting with lived in (compared to Bangalore) cramped flats but this seemed to foster a much greater sense of community among the families who lived there; the Bhel puri was a revelation; and I didn’t look at the generally run-down condition of the buildings and cringe, like an infatuated teenager I only thought it made it look more beautiful. When I visit Bombay today, almost all of that is still true, of course I continue to love the city, it is still one of a select few that I could imagine living in, the huge piles of garbage do make me cringe, but I’ve learned to ignore that in India, I continue to be amazed by the vast slums, and the most amazing thing about Bombay is that the taxi/auto drivers don’t seem to want to fleece me and people stand in line to get into a bus (but not to get into a local?). There are times of the year when I hate the weather there, but I’m beginning to learn that there are few places in India that a Bangalorean can go to and not complain about the weather.

This general love-affair with Bombay was why I was rather looking forward to reading Maximum City. I was eager to learn a lot more, I had only glimpsed Bombay in brief 1 and 2 day stints, what was I missing? And more importantly, make me love it more. The title aptly captures my concept of Bombay, it is truly a maximum city, not only is every thing bigger and better: they have the largest slums and Ambani’s $1B home, more people migrate there than anywhere else, every form of industry known to man seems to operate in some corner of Bombay, some of the richest Indians live there and certainly some of the poorest, they have more gangs per capita than anywhere else, and more ingredients in their melting pot than the rest of the country.

And so it was that the book itself fell short of my expectations. The biggest problem with the book was that it felt more like a buffet than a banquet. You get to pick and enjoy your dishes, but there is no unifying theme, you don’t come away with any greater appreciation for Bombay and what makes it tick than what you already imagined.

There are three distinct voices in the book: immigrant Mehta, literary journalist Mehta and ironic Mehta. Immigrant Mehta gets us kicked off with a personal note about his return to Bombay after an absence of some 20 years during which time he has lived around the world. This is of course an experience I appreciate myself, and his visceral notes about Bombay (generally true of any where in India, natch) ring very true. He neatly and concisely captures the culture shock of a returning Indian and continuing amazement that the “system” works nevertheless. Bombay (as the rest of India is also) emerges as the city of No, a city where change is the only constant where even the footpath today is not what it was last week, and will never be a usable footpath.

Literary Mehta disappoints. This section of the book comprises long (think New Yorker length and more) essays about different facets of the city: the 93 riots, the beer bar dancers, the gangs and so on. Mehta’s method here is to immerse himself in the lives that he wishes to document and then write about them in mini-novellas. But this leads to three problems: first, and somewhat trivial perhaps, his is not a writing style that lends itself to such long pieces. His writing style feels Economist, his writing length says New Yorker, this often left me tired as I reached the end of a marathon that I had expected to sprint through. Second, this method has an inbuilt shortcoming: there are only so many lives you can document, and you come away feeling that you have not had a complete picture, what about the lives of the local train engineer, the taxi driver, the stock broker, the high flying industrialist, the iron smelter in Dharavi, all of these people contribute to making Bombay maximum also, but they are conspicuous by their absence. Finally, by insinuating himself into their lives what starts as an apparently journalistic investigation of someone’s life and work quickly turns gushingly sympathetic, all Mumbai cops are corrupt and immoral except the one whom Mehta has chosen to portray, all Bombay beer bar dancers are really just looking to swindle their next “boyfriend” except the one Mehta befriends (and I’m so not buying the chastity of that relationship), and on and on.

Finally, we read Ironic Mehta. When he turns a detached (and somewhat snobbish perhaps) eye at Bollywood, his school, the Jains in search of salvation, Mehta turns the irony dial to 11 and doesn’t disappoint. He is unfailingly energetic throughout the book but now he channels it well showing us how few things in India are what they appear to be on the outside. This turns out to be especially true in that city of dhandha, and Mehta documents this exceedingly well. A different Bombay comes together at this point in his book, it might or might not be the real Bombay, but is certainly the most credible portrait, and it is as well that he leaves us with this picture, a little something to wash down the earlier silliness.

Posted in Book Review, Capitalism, Literature, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Quickie Film Review: Sarkar Raj

Posted by anandrr on January 1, 2009

We watched Sarkar Raj recently. We waited so long because we had watched Sarkar and had been rather unimpressed. We are not big fans of derivative movies. Except when we are, of course. But Sarkar Raj was good! We enjoyed it thoroughly.  Watching it, we were struck by two things: First, an open-collar-black-jacket, clean shaven Abhishek could stand in for Obama in the movie version of 2008. Second, as often as Abhishek utters the word “change” (except he calls it badlav) in Sarkar Raj, heck, he probably is Obama. I doubt that the word change has ever been uttered more pointlessly and vacuously anywhere else except in the Obama campaign?

Posted in Corruption, Films, Politics, Reviews, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Tale of Two Pakistani Kids

Posted by anandrr on December 14, 2008

Almost a month ago, young Nasir Sultan, 15, was released from a jail in India and allowed to return to his hometown in Pakistan.

Nasir Sultan returns to Pakistan. © AP

Nasir Sultan returns to Pakistan. © AFP

Young Nasir was guilty of sneaking into India. He idolized Shah Rukh Khan and wished to make a career for himself in Bollywood. When found, he was put in jail, but released quickly because who among us has not been guilty of wanting to meet the King of Bollywood? Most Indians would have been sympathetic towards young Nasir, and nobody wished him anything but a safe return.

Exactly one week later, India woke up to this picture in their newspapers of another young Pakistani who had sneaked into the country.

One of the Mumbai terrorists.

One of the Mumbai terrorists.

Both pictures show us a confident, young man, dressed like any reasonably well off middle class kid in the subcontinent, and but for the weaponry virtually indistinguishable from one another. One sneaked into India because he was attracted by the glitz of Mumbai, the other, well, apparently for the same reason, but with different motives.

But here’s the kicker. In the future, expect young Nasirs when they are found to be treated with no kindness at all. After all, who’s to say? Any cop who finds an errant Pakistani kid in India will certainly make sure that the kid pays not only for his current sin of being on foreign soil without a permit, but for all the sins of his fellow-countrymen. And that’s the real tragedy. All young Pakistani boys and men suddenly moved into the enemy column. But mostly, they really just want to be Shah Rukh Khan.

Posted in Culture, Films, Foreign Policy, Politics, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Flashback Friday: India’s Bruce Springsteen

Posted by anandrr on December 5, 2008

I ran into this quite by accident. Is it me or wasn’t there an old Rishi Kapoor song, Rishi Kapoor at a traffic intersection, decked out in red, yellow and green lights making a complete ass of himself or am I completely misremembering a traumatic incident of my childhood? I was searching Youtube for this comedic gem and ended with nothing to show. Instead, let’s all doff our hats to the serendipitous wonders of the tubes, I ran into Mithun showing us how it’s done. The easily excitable aunties in the audience are so enthralled by his moves, it’s all they can do to remain seated! And that shrieking girl, oh precious.

Since I never write about anything until I’ve researched the shit out of it, I just now spent some time on the Wikipedia page for Disco Dancer (while you’re on the Wikipedia page, check out the “Cliche Dialogues” section, especially the, “He’s got guitar phobia. A guitar killed his mother,” priceless! One imagines an army of guitars descending on the guitar phobic, one also imagines a staunch 2nd Amendment defender claiming, “Guitars don’t kill people, People kill people.” One wonders if the purists booed when the guitar killers went suddenly from using acoustic to electric. Sellouts! But enough, back to the res), and what should I find but that the movie was made in 1982. Per the same Wikipedia, Bruce made Dancing in the Dark in 1984. Who copied whom? Does Courteney Cox owe her career to Mithun and Bappi L? We need answers!

To close out this discussion, I’m thinking it would have been cool if MTV India (or Channel V) had launched with this song:

I’m guessing they didn’t. However, for your viewing pleasure here is the original any way:

You’re making the first ever music video, and this is the best you can do? You’re changing the way the world experiences music and you have a little girl turning the dials on a washing machine? WTF? Seriously, WTF?

Posted in Culture, Films, Nostalgia, Showbiz, TV, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Choosing a DVD Rental Service: Seventymm

Posted by anandrr on June 30, 2008

Seventymm has less than BigFlix, it’s missing all the same ones as BigFlix, and is also missing Infernal Affairs. Also they don’t redeem themselves by stocking Blood Simple. 5/10, very poor!

Posted in Films, Showbiz, TV | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Choosing a DVD Rental Service: Bigflix

Posted by anandrr on June 30, 2008

Bigflix stocks 6 out of our gold standard list of 10 DVDs. 6 isn’t bad. Not good, but not too shabby for a new Indian service. They don’t stock Fargo, but they do have Blood Simple, go figure. They also don’t have Rashomon, Jesus Camp or Enthusiasm.

Posted in Films, Showbiz, TV | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »