Monday, August 24, 2009

Yes I Can!

"Can you make a ventriloquist's dummy that looks like my actress?"
"Can you teach my hip hop class for me?"
"Can you make my brother a skunk smoking jacket?"
"Can you put on a puppet show for my four-year-old's birthday party?"
"Can you choreograph seven Bollywood numbers for our wedding?"
"Can you write a one-hour musical for sixty fifth-graders?"
"Can you paint a mural on our garage?"

These are all questions people have recently asked me -- three of them within the last two weeks.
And to all of them I've said, sure!
What do I do for a living, you ask?
I can. That's what.
I can.

AND, I do.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
(trans. loosely as The Lover Will Carry the Bride Away, 1995)

Directed by: Aditya Chopra
Produced by: Yash Chopra
Starring: Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol (hey, I was in a movie with them! and so was Dave. Woot!)

It's Kinda Like: The first half is like Guys and Dolls, the second half is like . . . it's stretching, but like Oceans Eleven with love instead of money. And with only one guy instead of eleven.

If you're unfamiliar with Bollywood and want to see a really entertaining example of the genre (an old-school or maybe mid-school one; things have changed a LOT since 1995), this is definitely one to see. It's one of the highest-grossing Hindi movies of all time, I think the longest-running (700 weeks straight in theaters, according to Wikipedia -- that's 13 and a half years!!!), it won ten Filmfare awards the year it came out, AND it's genuinely a whole lot of fun to watch.

Like the film that came out the year before, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (stay tuned for a review of that one, also a major major hit), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is like spending the weekend with someone's enormous, hilarious family. DDLJ is a little lighter on the melodrama (there still is some -- this is Bollywood, after all!); more hijinks and it travels farther outside the family home, from London to Europe and then to India.

The Plot: Raj (SRK) is the spoiled, charming, freewheeling son of a millionaire, while Simran (Kajol) is the daughter of a fiercely patriotic Punjabi convenience store owner -- both of them born and raised in London. Simran has been betrothed since birth to the son of her father's best friend in India; as the film opens, her father receives a letter saying, "It's time!" Simran has dreams of an unseen perfect boyfriend, but is pretty resigned to her arranged marriage -- but she wants one last fling: her friends have bought tickets for a month-long Eurail tour of Europe, and she wants to go.

Guess who else is on that tour? Bingo! Raj (and some hilarious friends, including a young, pudgy-faced "Robbie," played by Karan Johar -- hey! Dave and I were in a movie directed by that guy! ;o). Raj, the determined womanizer, fixes his eye on Simran as a challenge (or hey, her friends will do), while she specifically tries to deflate him at every turn. (See? Like Guys and Dolls.) He's so maddeningly carefree, it's hard to tell when he's being serious for a change. In this dance number early in their overseas tour, she's just called his bluff: overhearing him claim to be a fantastic piano player in order to hit on her friend, she walks up onstage and announces, "We have an amazing piano player in the house. Let's hear it for him!" And waits for him to be keeeeenly embarrassed . . .

Something goes wrong, and of course they're stuck traveling alone together. And guess what happens. Hey, you're smart! But before things really come to a head, the trip ends and they part with a handshake, a declined invitation to her wedding, and no real closure. Simran gushes to her mom about the great guy she met, and OOPS, now that her true love is real and not imaginary, he's dangerous. Bang! Dad picks up the whole family and they move straightaway back to India.

And then the second half of the film is the OTHER fun part! Back in India, with the hilarious huge family she's never met -- and her weirdo hunter-cum-greaser fiance. Guess who ends up there as well? And his plot to carry her off (hence the title) is ingenious and fun to watch unfold. The plot is essentially: to NOT CARRY HER OFF. You'll see.

Part of the fun of this movie (like HAHK) is that people are mostly so NICE to each other. Aside from Simran's tall, imposing father (Amrish Puri) with the bug-eyed glare so intense as to be highly comic, all the characters interact on a teasing, slapstick-y level that seems antagonistic at times, but feels, overall, very SAFE. Even Raj's dad (the adorably round-faced Anupam Kher) is totally supportive of his bride-stealing plan, and comes to help out! Everyone is the Marx Brothers, except that there are forty of them. Amidst a very comic cast, Shah Rukh Khan is hilarious, and oh so reassuring, and this film is generally agreed to be one of his (and Kajol's) best performances.

Never fear: there are moments of danger, tragedy, and violence. But you know that everything will be OK, and that people will continue to take care of each other no matter what happens.

Verdict: Delightful. Hilarious, awwww-inducing, and generally quite delightful. Watch it, and be delighted.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Aaja Nachle

Aaja Nachle (trans. Come Dance -- 2007)

Directed by: Anil Mehta
Starring: Madhuri Dixit, Akshaye Khanna, Irrfan Khan, and lots more

Big Songs: Aaja Nachle, maybe Dance with Me?

It's Kinda Like: Any of those "Let's Put on a Show in the Barn!" movies, plus Waiting for Guffman (except for serious -- it's the exact plot structure that Waiting for Guffman is poking gentle fun at), maybe a hint of West Side Story, plus -- Un-Scripted members take note! -- our early Let It Snow! plots.

How can a professional artist NOT enjoy a movie that makes the case for theater changing people's lives? Plus the structure is not your usual romantic comedy plot, so it's an interesting journey, as well.

Aaja Nachle is about a dancer and choreographer self-exiled to New York, who returns to her hometown in India after ten years (with Americanized daughter in tow) when she gets a phone call that her theater guru is dying. Of course when she gets there, she has to muster all her theatrical skills to motivate a village who truly hates her, in order to save her beloved ancient amphitheatre from development into a mall (see, Let it Snow!).

Once Dia (Madhuri Dixit) eloped with an American and fled the village in disgrace, the theater program in her town died. Hence, the villagers and their local MP, "Raja" Uday Singh (Akshaye Khanna), want to build a mall. (Of COURSE she goes over there intending to yell at him, and of COURSE he's younger and cuter and more charming than she thought he'd be -- it's a movie!) She vows to revive the place with her New York company, but noooo . . . Raja Singh insists that she cast all LOCALS. Oh, and she has two months.

Of course, all the locals still hate her (did I mention her parents moved away in disgrace?) and no one will audition. So she does the craziest thing possible: casts the biggest, angriest thug in the gang that's tearing her theater sets apart. Imran Pathan (Kunal Kapoor), a lanky, moody, giant who just happens to be the local heartthrob, will play Majnu in her musical play about Laila and Majnu (a Romeo and Juliet-like story). All at once, people are lining up to audition to be his Laila, and to be in the play. Cue a dance number: Show Me Your Jalwa!

Madhuri Dixit is charming and believable as a mom and a choreographer, and her obvious dance training makes her a lot of fun to watch in the dance numbers. And her ragtag village cast are so lovable and ridiculous at the start, that it makes my little heart want to hug them. Of COURSE they will be awesome -- it's a movie! But they're a well-cast, appropriately mismatched bunch. And Irrfan Khan, most well-known by Westerners as the (slightly pop-eyed) cop in Slumdog Millionaire makes a great deadpan secret villain.

And of course, the final crucial performance is so unbelievably above and beyond what would be possible, strictly logistically, in that outdoor space -- but they show you the whole thing, so you get to revel in its improbable awesomeness, to your fullest extent. Theater! It changes lives! I love it!

Verdict: It's about theater making people better! How could I NOT love it? Five jazz hands.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Something I Like: HEM

I subbed at KZSU yesterday (9am - noon, I'll be subbing the next two Tuesday mornings as well!), and it got me remembering how much great music there is, much of which I found there.

Sooo I thought I'd try to occasionally feature some Stuff I Like (besides Bollywood), and that includes music as well.

One of my favorite music finds from KZSU is a band called Hem. Their genre defies exact description. Some have called them "indie-folk," but when I think of folk I tend to think of Peter, Paul, and Mary, or the Indigo Girls-- an earthy guitar-led sound. Hem is much more orchestral than a mere indie-guitar outfit. Their instrumentation includes piano, glockenspiel, violin, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, PLUS guitar, bass, and percussion.

I think of their music as . . . could one say "wise pastoral?" Listening to their instrumentals you can just picture the wind blowing over the prairie -- even though they're all in New York. Aaron Copland would probably love it -- though, there's no brass, so he might take issue with that.

Here's a video of them performing live, with one of their songs from an early album (their first?) Rabbit Songs, which has a great panorama of their styles. Ranging from delicate instrumental waltzes to the more traditional rural-folk cover of "The Cuckoo," this album as a whole is so beautiful that sometimes I can't bear to listen to it. You know what I mean.

If you're now hooked, and dying to know all about them, you can go visit their website at, where they even have -- GASP! -- FREE DOWNLOADS available.

Hem: know them and love them.

Peace out!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Love Aaj Kal

Love Aaj Kal (2009)

(I think this means "Love Today Tomorrow?" Or "Love Today Yesterday?" or BOTH? "Kal" can mean either, depending on context . . . It is weird when one has learned enough Hindi from watching movies to be able to translate titles. And, to be able to eavesdrop on people at the farmers' market.)

Directed by: Imtiaz Ali

Starring: Saif Ali Khan (Jai), Deepika Padukone (Meera), Rishi Kapoor (Veer Singh)

Link to "Chor Bazari" promo (they no likee the embedding)

A dual love story -- most Bollywood films tend to give you two-for-one, and that's the twofer for this movie: one set in 1965-ish Delhi (Dilli?), one set in today-land (2009 London). It's a counterpoint between the undying flame of a provincial love at first sight, and the murky uncertainty of cosmopolitan dating and sleeping around. Jai and Meera must part to pursue their careers, with perhaps the most amicable breakup in film history -- but the cafe owner where they're hosting their breakup party shamelessly butts in with embarrassing questions and his own love story, and this new strange friendship kicks off the real plot that follows.

The beginning of the film is an interesting editing technique -- a whirlwind fast-forward through the first two years of a relationship, before we even get to the credits. Like the dual love story in the rest of the film, they don't hit you over the head with the convention, but let you figure out what's going on. As the characters might say: Practical. The past/present stories flow together without a lot of fanfare; it's pretty easy to figure out, so why should they make a big fuss for you? You're a smart person.

And the stories speak to each other nicely without a giant sappy parallel-story-fest. I mean, they're sort of parallel, but again, not so you'd be bludgeoned by it. AND, past-guy and future-guy are played by the same actor, BUT that's really hard to tell, and they do seem like two totally different people (to me, at least), so that's a nice touch as well. Subtle.

I was also struck by the colors in the film; overall the film is less sappy/sentimental than it is poignant, and that color palette just twists your heartstrings. The present is in vibrant bright colors, while the past is always tinged with that reddish sandstone color like that faded photo of your mom as a baby that always makes you want to cry. The casting is brilliant; Harleen (love interest in the past) is so adorably awkward, and all the people in the past with their "real-people" looks are just so earnest, especially as compared to the catty plastic Londoners. That group of young Veer and friends with their turbans and fitted 70s short-sleeve button-downs and high-waisted 70s pants, riding their bikes after the girl in the rickshaw . . . . Awwwwwwww! (Go casting, costumes, and art direction; nice job, guys!)

Not a film that was built around the songs; most of them are in voiceover, and the two dance numbers are a bit oddly thrown in (especially the party anthem du jour "Twist") -- but sometimes you just gotta have a "Broadway Melody" moment, right? The music is enjoyable throughout, whether shoehorned in or not.

And I have to say: what's up with all the San Francisco imagery on the marketing materials? Not to give anything away, but they didn't exactly spend a whole lotta time there. (It looks like they were filming REALLY near Union Square for virtually all the shots. How did I miss this filming process? I spent all of last year in Union Square, practically!)(And why is there a giant institute "Golden Gate Inc." that builds bridges if the Golden Gate is already BUILT? hwwwwhwwwAAAAA?)

Anyway. And I did enjoy the treatment of relationships; both extremes (undying love at first sight vs "good morning, what was your name again?") are seen by the characters as kind of silly in the light of day, and the relationships between the leads -- Jai, Meera, AND Veer Singh -- are fresh and teasing and honest; they are playful with each other and not overly precious. I'm always a fan of love interests poking each other on the arm. Some great banter, too: improvisors take note. Nice teasing each other, and some very funny emotional babbling.

The film glides along at a stately pace, with no *major* moments of urgency or surprise or hilarity -- but that creates an inexorable tug towards the dual resolution(s), that keeps you going "AwwWWWWWWWW!" throughout, which is my favorite sound to make an audience make, personally. And I'm a sucker for a pretty film. Did I mention how pretty it is? Ooof. All those shots of that train in the 60s train station, and Young-Veer riding the train. And Harleen on the balcony at night, brilliantly lit in the darkness. Awwwwwwww!

So: overall, good job, film. (Why is it that the people acting in English, especially the non-Indians, always act like zombies in these films? I'm talking to you, weird Frenchy Swiss girl.)

(Can you tell? I'm a film lover AND a heckler. It's possible for me to be having a great time watching a film, at the same time that I'm also picking on the costumes and pointing out continuity errors and hilarious extras. To notice is to enjoy, I say.)

Verdict: Adorable. This film makes you want to hug it. (awwwwww!)

Bollywood Movie of the Week Begins (we hope).

I went to see a new Bollywood movie today (Love Aaj Kal), and I tried to see if I could make a list of all the Bollywood movies I've seen, both before, during, and after researching The Great Puppet Bollywood Extravaganza. And boy, it was a lot. And since I've been choreographing a bunch of wedding dances, and my roommate is teaching Bollywood at what seems like every company between here and Seattle, Bollywood is eating our house.

So, to edify my friends and colleagues as well as complete strangers (and to keep track of all these darn movies I've seen), I'm gonna try to write up a movie a week. There's quite the list before I have to go out and see any more . . . oh no, twist my arm. :o)

There might be more than one Bollywood movie a week. Or less than one a week. But I *do* have things to say about them, so I'll try to keep myself motivated. ;o)

On Bollywood in general: I have to say, I love it. It's just as if the Hollywood movie industry from the 30s and 40s (post Hayes Code), with its mega star system and its casts of thousands and its singing and dancing and its heightened realities, was transported to a strange planet and allowed to evolve separately. (India: the Galapagos of film?) Spectacle, melodrama, slapstick, romance, all together, forever!

And, perhaps because Bollywood films tend to have something for everyone -- comedy next to drama as per Dickens' streaky bacon -- they definitely *feel* different than American films. Plots may be contrived, but characters almost feel more like real people, showing a wider range of emotions than American films (at least mainstream Hollywood films) have time to give us. The comedy is genuinely funny, AND the tragedy is sincerely tragic. So much crying!

Let the Bollywooding begin!