Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bollyween Movie of the Halloweek: Gumnaam

Because I'm sick sick sick today this Halloween (boo), instead of afternoon-Halloween-partying with roommates I'm at home with anguished lungs (boo), and I *finally* decided to watch this movie, lent to me by my pal Rebecca Stockley (hi Rebecca!). And it was WAY more Halloween-appropriate than I thought. So, with strange delirious Halloween glee, I present you with:

Gumnaam, 1965

Directed by: Raja Nawathe

Produced by: M.A. Madhu and N.N. Sippy

Starring: (in the era of the one-named star) Nanda, Manoj Kumar, Pran, Helen, Mehmood, Dhumal, Madan Puri, Tarun Bose, Manmohan, Naina

It's Kinda Like: Lost meets Agatha Christie meets Horror Movie with a Castle (parts reminded me of Young Frankenstein, even!), with a dash of Gilligan's Island

This movie is WEIRD. I guess it was 1965, what do you expect? The trailer proclaims it to be "India's First Suspense Thriller in Eastman Color," confusing -- is that a claim to fame, or just Eastman's claim to fame? Anyway -- it's a strange, looong, meandering thriller that owes a lot to Agatha Christia's manor-house style murder mysteries (Wikipedia mentions 10 Little Indians as an "uncredited" writing credit). Above all, I think I found it fascinating, if anything.

Rebecca bought the movie because they became fascinated with it, as did many Americans, after seeing one of its musical numbers as featured in the movie Ghost World:

This is actually the first musical number in the film, and it's almost the first thing that happens. (Note: this is NOT the weirdest musical number in the film.) A big bummer is that for whatever reason, lots of old Bollywood movies don't subtitle the songs, so you *still* don't know what's going on. Still, if they're staged appropriately, you can pretty much get the gist: "We're drunk and it's hilarious!" "C'mere, baby, I think you're cute!" "We're so in love!" or in the case of the opening number, "Jan Pehechaan Ho" apparently means, "Let's get to know each other!"

The crazy staging of this song is basically an excuse to set up the plot: seven strangers win a fabulous vacation on a chartered flight -- but oops, they're mysteriously stranded! Wandering through what seems to be a deserted island, they happen upon an opulent manor in the middle of nowhere. Yowza!

Of course, they find out that they've all been wrangled there for some purpose: all of them are criminals and will be picked off one by one! There's no host that they can see ("Gumnaam" apparently means "no one," or "lost one"), but taking care of their physical needs is a childish, clownish butler in a stripy T-shirt and plaid dhoti -- who seems to be mimicking India's Charlie Chaplin, Raj Kapoor. [edit: Google Books reveals a memoir from Mahmood, the actor, who confirms that indeed he's mimicking Raj Kapoor, Prithviraj Kapoor, and Randhir Kapoor. go me!]

The other things perfect for a campy Halloween viewing include a ruined church, a ghostly female voice, strange noises in the woods, and some bizarre comic wordplay -- and romance. Like lots of Bollywood films, this one's got something for everyone: love, comedy, danger, terribly-staged '60s fights (I'm stepping on your foot! No, I'M stepping on YOUR foot!), and oh yeah, the suspense plot -- people are dying! who's the murderer? why is no one who they seem to be? What is up with that 5-minute sequence at the beginning of the film where the guy gets murdered?!?

They don't seem terribly concerned by this whole murder thing, until people actually start dying. They're too concerned with ordering food, wandering around looking at the island, going swimming and gogo dancing on the beach, and chasing the Mary Ann ("Asha") and Ginger ("Miss Kitty") characters.

The plot -- and the film -- move at a pace common to movies of that era, where the shots are all so loooooooooooooong, and some of them are realllly reduuuundant. Yet, apparently this film was a box office hit. It takes its sweet time -- but on the other hand, it takes the time for people to really examine their situation: how would people trapped in this situation *actually* feel? Asha confides to her newfound love that before, she didn't really have a reason to fear death -- until now that she's got someone else to live for. Awwww.

The Verdict: Campy, confusing, and fascinating. Clearly not the best film ever -- but maybe for a group viewing with lots of heckling and drinking.

And okay: THIS is the weirdest musical number in the movie.
Hum Kale Hain Toh Kya Hua song - Gumnaam

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Lagaan

Lagaan, 2001

Directed by: Ashutosh Gowariker

Produced by: Aamir Khan and Jhamu Sughand

Narrated by: Amitabh Bachchan

Starring: Aamir Khan, Gracy Singh, Rachel Shelley, Paul Blackthorne

It's Kinda Like: Sports Movie meets Period Epic

Here's something you probably never thought you'd read: "Dude, this almost-four-hour subtitled movie about cricket is SO suspenseful! You GOTTA check it out, it's awesome!" And yet, I just wrote that. Dude. And you know who'll back me up? The American Film Academy: Lagaan was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, in 2002. And quite a bit more anecdotal and less, say, impressive: when I was directing The Great Puppet Bollywood Extravaganza, Lagaan was on my list of recommended films to see, and everyone in my cast who saw it *also* thought it was amazing. So there.

Set in the Victorian period of the British Raj in India, the film is about the village of Champaner and the unreasonable taxes levied against their drought-ravaged fields ("lagaan" translates as "land tax"). Our hero musters the village to protest this year's *double* tax -- but the British Captain in charge of their district presents them with an unexpected challenge: beat his Britishers at a cricket match, and avoid paying the tax for three years! Lose the match, however, and pay *triple* this year.

Our hero is Bhuvan (played by one of the famous Khans -- Aamir, this time), a strapping young lad about the age to do something with his life. At the palace of the Raja, where the men come to formally protest the tax, Bhuvan gets into a fight with the British Captain when the villagers stop to gape at white-clad Brits playing what they consider to be a children's game. Male pride: see why the mean British Captain hates that village so much?

Back home, Bhuvan is responsible for putting together a motley crew of wannabe cricket players; despite their glib assertions that it's a simple children's game, they have almost no idea how to play and have never seen a match (one Sikh guy used to be a British soldier and has some small idea). And we're talking a *seriously* motley crew: faced with derision and opposition from most of the village, Bhuvan drafts an Untouchable, which causes everyone else on the team to quit. They are totally up the proverbial creek: it's a *ludicrous* challenge they've undertaken.

Meanwhile, tagging along at Bhuvan's heroic heels is Gauri (Gracy Singh), tomboyish childhood friend who's of course totally smitten with him (I mean, he's pretty hunky; who wouldn't be?). In return, he cheerfully gives her the runaround, which drives her crazy. Look how cute they are, in this film clip:

Who's that strange white lady, you ask? That's Elizabeth Russell, sister of the mean British captain. Appalled that her brother has trapped the village in an impossible situation, in a monstrous breach of Victorian propriety she sneaks away to help coach their scrappy team. And of course she falls for the hunky Bhuvan.

A large percentage of the film is taken up by that final cricket match, and it IS actually a gripping sequence. Rest assured the film teaches you enough that even complete cricket novices (like me!) will be able to follow the action.

Lagaan was made an interesting time for Bollywood: the films I've seen from the late '90s all seem much older than they are; there's a sort of line of modernity evident, somewhere in the late '90s to early 2000's. Lagaan certainly tries very hard to seem like a Western-hemisphere-made epic film: the film's narrated opening and zoomed-in map feel more like Hollywood than Bollywood. The film has an overall sense of self-conscious epic importance, which certainly works well for generating suspense over the outcome. It's a very earnest, serious period film. (I mean, there's definitely comedy mixed in -- but the film isn't Bollywood-Goofy.) And the musical numbers are snugly integrated into the environment of the film, springing directly from the action like this song about the hope of rain:

It's a pity that the poor Russell siblings, being non-Indians, are suffering from Speaking English Syndrome: it seems like non-Indian characters in Hindi films always come off like zombies, with bizarre stilted acting. And they've had plenty of work since then, according to IMDB, so it can't be that they're just terrible actors. Though in a film about shunning colonialism, I suppose you don't want the English to come off all that well. All in all, it's forgivable.

Verdict: See it! Strongly recommended -- though take a dinner break in the middle or something, cause this sucker's LONG.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Dostana

Dostana, 2008

Directed by: Tarun Mansukhani

Produced by: Karan Johar, Prashant Shah

Starring: John Abraham, Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Bobby Deol, Kirron Kher (world's best Bollywood mom!)

Notable songs: Desi Girl, Shut up and Bounce, Jaane Kyun, Khabar Nahi

It's Kinda Like: Three's Company (but in reverse) meets Friends, with a dash of Ugly Betty, and a tinge of Green Card.

Dostana, which means "Friendship," is a unique Bollywood film: it's the first Indian film in which issues of homosexuality, specifically male homosexuality, are not comic relief but instead the main plot. For India, this is a Big Fat Deal: homosexual sex was a criminal act until 2009. THIS YEAR. AFTER this movie was made. (It's also the first Indian movie filmed entirely in Miami, but that's less exciting -- though probably necessary, given the subject matter.)

It's a little racier than you might be used to in a Bollywood movie, too. But I saw it right when it opened, in a packed theater, and the audience totally loved it. The scenes where our heroes are discovered in Accidentally Compromising Positions got slightly *more* laughter than felt comfortable to me in the theater -- but we can cut India some slack.

It's a high-budget, slick modern campy comedy about hilarious attractive people who are too wealthy to have *actual* problems: the best kind of escapism! I totally enjoyed it; it's a little silly, but the comedy bits are very funny and the chemistry between the two male leads is fantastic. Abhishek Bachchan steals the show.

Let's be clear: none of the main characters are *actually* gay, which is established in one of those unexpectedly adultish sequences, after the opening credits. Nothing you wouldn't see in an American movie -- or even on TV -- but for Bollywood, it's like whoa!

Here's the very *first* thing you see of the movie: the title credit sequence, which neatly sums up the in-your-face sassy hawtness they wish to establish (starring Shilpa Shetty as the Item Girl -- she's just in this song, not the rest of the movie):

In this crazy fast world of Miami, the two main characters, Samir (Abhishek Bachchan) and Kunal (John Abraham) are both Indian expats, both coincidentally needing a place to live. They've met before (in the hilarious opening sequence after the credits) and they meet again, in an astronomically unrealistically awesome apartment for rent. But Aunty (played by the HIGH-larious baby-faced Sushmita Mukherjee) won't let any boys live there. No Boys Allowed!

The apartment is just too awesome to pass up, so they reluctantly decide to do something CRAZY: play gay in an attempt to get another chance at the rental. Only later do they discover that the *actual* tenant is not Aunty, but her superhot niece Neha (Priyanka Chopra). Oopsie!

Plus, despite the boys' mutual desire to spread the news of their gayness in order to protect their precious reputations, circumstances (Aunty's nosiness, residency papers, Neha's gay boss, etc) mandate that they "come out" to pretty much everyone. I'll let you imagine the eventual fallout (hint: someone in the cast is playing someone's MOM). Plus, they're both in love with Neha! Awwwkward. The boys make the best of it, and from the first, they spend absolutely every second together, and soon become a trio of best friends. Awwwww! Watch the adorableness as they first move in together (and check that apartment! crazy, right?):

As India's first gay movie, Dostana is definitely a maverick. Sometimes, like mentioned above, I wasn't sure whether I should be slightly offended sometimes on behalf of the gay community -- the gay characters are a little on the stereotypical flaming side -- but then again, it's Miami, right? And you do have to cut India some slack: confronting homophobia is a Big Deal! The characters in the film are indeed forced to confront personal prejudices -- though it's *definitely* a comedy first and foremost, not an "issues" movie. (The flashback sequence where the boys attempt to describe how they met may be campy, but it's also *so funny.*)

Anyway. I totally enjoyed it, in that "guilty pleasure" sorta way. Definitely a "fantasy" that takes place in Glamour World: Neha is a mucky-muck at an international magazine, Kunal is a fashion photographer, Sam is recently arrived from a posh life in London. The plot ventures slightly into the sappy and unrealistic at times (derrr, Sam, did you hire a professional photographer to take those pictures of you and Neha "alone?" Whaaaaa?) -- but that's excusable in the "sitcom" genre, which this film definitely falls into. Situational Comedy!

There are some high-larious references to other Bollywood pop culture (what Bollywood movie doesn't do this? as my roommate Heraldo said ironically upon watching this movie, "So I guess the second Bollywood film ever made, referenced the first one, and so on."), including a very funny scene mimicking Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham -- you don't have to get them to have the movie make sense, but it definitely adds to the modern Pop-Culture-Savvy Sitcom feel of this movie, overall.

Verdict: A "chick flick" about boys -- with hot chicks in it. Very funny and probably enjoyable for the general public. Plus, watching it makes you feel like you're helping the world become better people!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Billu Barber

In honor of the song my Bollywood dance class is learning, plus the song I picked for the dance warmup for the Let It Snow! cast, I present:

Billu Barber, 2008

Directed by: Priyadarshan

Produced by: Gauri Khan

Starring: Irrfan Khan (aka the cop from Slumdog Millionaire and the villain from Aaja Nachle), Lara Dutta, Om Puri, Rajpal Yadav, Asrani, and of course Shahrukh Khan.

It's Kinda Like: Hard to say -- though Wikipedia tells me it's a retelling of the story of Krishna and Sudama. (Also that it's a Hindi remake of a 2007 Indian film made in the Mayalayam language.)

Billu Barber is a non-romance, and another film where Shahrukh Khan stars as a knowing parody of himself (see Om Shanti Om). If anything, it's a friendship romance, an unexpected storyline.

Billu (a guarded and put-upon Irrfan Khan) is a barber in a small Indian village. His daily life includes spending time with his wife and two young children, hanging out with his best friends, and generally trying to make ends meet. Until one day (!!), Sahir Khan (Shahrukh), the most famousest Bollywood movie star ever, comes to town to shoot a film.

Billu mentions that he's sort of friends with the famous Khan, but is unclear about the circumstances. Suddenly, it's like, whoa-- EVERYone wants to be his very bestest friend. Suddenly all kinds of people to whom he owes money are falling over themselves to be nice to him, all willing to make him deals for just one leeeettle meeting with the star. As you can imagine, things get way out of hand.

He starts to backtrack, unwilling to provide details, coming up with continual excuses why he can't set up a meeting, or why they've just missed him. It's a real dilemma: his children need to go to school, his barber shop is experiencing competition from the trendy barber next door, he owes money to important people--but he seems to regret ever making the comment in the first place. Soon his friends and family violently turn aGAINST him, even his wife and children. Poor Billu!

Do they really know each other? Will he have any friends at all by the end of the movie? Watch the movie and find out! Butcha don't have to take my word for it!

This was a fun movie, with gorgeous cinematography and a glowing color palette -- and Shahrukh Khan is really good-natured about his self-parody. He first enters the movie in a motorcycle cavalcade, surrounded by fire:

That clip, above, is indeed the music video from the movie, complete with all those ridiculous clips of "Sahir Khan's" awesome filmic feats -- AND, ALL of those are real clips from movies that Shahrukh Khan was ACTUALLY IN. (Cheap for the production company, huh? No need to film *fake* ridiculous movie footage when there's already years and years worth.) Fans will no doubt recognize at least some of them; *I* certainly did. Running from a helicopter? Check. Wearing a ridiculous mustache and jumping out of a fire? Check. Scoring a soccer goal in the rain? Check. Shirtless and surrounded by hot chicks fondling his killer abs? Check. HIGH-larious.

The film, while showcasing Billu's difficulties, really sets up the contrast between village life and Bollywood glamour, and the visual contrast really plays up the absurdity of Bollywood-land against the tiny but very real troubles of Billu and his family. The villagers constantly flock to watch Sahir Khan shooting on location, and every big dance number features another improbable set with ridiculous costumes and a different item girl. Here's one of the big, er, "hits" from the film (fake Star Wars costumes! I love it!):

Don't you love that? And here, for contrast, is what the rest of the film's world looks like, showcased nicely in the film's trailer (all in Hindi, but you can just look, it's pretty!):

(And Let It Snow! folks take note: this film is a great example of a story that, despite containing elements that definitely come from outside the town, revolves completely around the small fates of people who live in the town and aren't looking to get out. The story is about villagers who are essentially OF the village.)

The Verdict: Yay. A friends-romance, about the changes in relationships which already exist: Billu and his wife, his children, his pals, his enemies, etc. Irrfan Khan nicely holds down the lead, with Lara Dutt as his down-to-earth but still-ridiculously-beautiful wife. And the kids are funny. Yay.