Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, 2006

It's Kinda Like: Not sure . . . the most tragic romantic comedy ever?

Directed by: Karan Johar

Produced by: Hiroo Johar

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Preity Zinta, Abhishek Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan, Kirron Kher

Note: among those in the know, this movie is referred to as KANK. Yeah, no kidding.

This is sort of a blast from the recent past, with a huge all-star cast. But my Bollywood class is doing a song from it, so I thought I'd mentally revisit it. I saw this kind of awhile ago, and one thing stuck with me: its unusually high-contrast genres. There are parts of this movie that are outlandishly cheesy, and parts that are punch-someone-in-the-face tearjerky (I'm not big on the tearjerker genre ;o). Overall I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it, though they drag out that drama To Its Utmost. It's an earl(ier) directing effort by Karan Johar, and not his very best.

This film is packed with stars, all doing their starry best in roles that suit them. There's Shahrukh Khan, today's most (?) famous Bollywood star, playing the comic/tragic love interest to the solid and stolid Rani Mukerji -- rounding out the love square (?) are their spouses, respectively played by the adorably bubbly Preity Zinta and the charmingly petulant Abhishek Bachchan (do they call him the Little B?). Parents in the film are played by yesterday's favorite Bollywood action hero, now Bollywood's favorite dad and narrator -- here he is, everyone's favorite, the Big B -- Amitabh Bachchan, and everyone's favorite most huggable Bollywood mom, Kirron Kher. All the stars are out, and they're emoting up a storm.

With four essentially likeable people involved in the Love Square, the sad parts are that much sadder, and of course there's every Romantic Misunderstanding and Missed Moment that you could think of. (If you're studying to remount Love At First Sight, Jennifer Kah, this would be a great microcosm of Romantic Distress.) And yet it's that kind of movie where the main characters are so in love that their time together is mostly spent crying because they feel So Guilty For Being In Love.

But there's also comedy, my friends -- for what is Bollywood if not for everyone? Of course Shahrukh Khan's character is charming, irreverent, witty, ever the jester and gadfly (when he's not doing that thing he does where he's sucking air through his lips in a Brave Attempt Not to Cry -- I'll have to imitate it for you). And then there's The Big B, who plays his real-life son's father in the film. In what might be a parody of their actual relationship, Amitabh's character Samarjit Singh Talwar goes by "Sexy Sam," and keeps being discovered by his son in corners, canoodling with young white hotties, a different one every scene. (Whenever he appears onscreen, he gets his own "Sexy Sam" background singers in the score. Awesome!) And his outfits are HIGH-larious. See this highlarious turtleneck and fur-collar jacket? He wears this in this movie.

And the musical numbers are half cheesy sadness and half cheesy goodness. Here are the cheesy-goodness songs from this movie, which, though they seem to fall from nowhere, are nonetheless welcome for their unabashed wackiness.

First: the song we're doing a choreography to -- I include this YouTube clip which has the dialogue preceding it, exposing all the romantic entanglements in a nutshell. (And of course, the parents have a longtime romantic rivalry too -- here they meet at the sumptuous party and trade barbs -- she asks him, "Oh, is that your daughter?" and when he finally ends the conversation, the chick asks Amitabh, "Who was that?" he replies, "My mother.")The scenes preceding the song are only about half in English, but the body language is pretty universal, and sets up the rivalries better than a lengthy plot explanation could. (also, watch out for Sexy Sam! he's got his own the actual lines from this song: "Sexy Sam, Sexy Sam, wham bam, wham bam, thank you, Sam." No kidding, watch for it around 5:20 in this clip):

Now, wouldn't you guess that that song came from a COMEDY? But comedy is just tragedy that you laugh at, and they stop laughing for the second act. Even this song doesn't manage to tip the genre scale, and it's pretty awesome . . . . And now, here and blaring from clubs worldwide, it's everyone's favorite hilarious party anthem . . .

(even more hilarious: both likely "item girls" are in this movie already -- and Kajol is a surprise Item Girl in the first song posted -- so there's kind of an "item guy" here -- the DJ is John Abraham, muscle-man star of action films like Dhoom.)

And then watch the genres collide! That's Bollywood for you -- there's enough time to see both sides of everything. The complications from comedy become tragic. The lousy spouses might be nice people. The silly father becomes noble. Romantic gestures turn practical and vice-versa. Will love triumph? And will throwing popcorn at the TV make it happen FASTER, already? Find out when you watch it.

Verdict: Mixed . . . depends on your mood? There are so many great actors doing their thing that they're fun to watch. And if you like heckling, there's plenty of over-the-top tearjerking to heckle. Again, depending on your mood, it's either a fun romantic comedy that suddenly runs off the rails into the Grand Canyon dug by all that crying, or else it's a Sumptuously Tragic Romance that springs from a silly comedy. Definitely a solid example of that kind of Bollywood tragicomedy romance.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Wake Up Sid

Wake Up Sid, 2009
Directed by: Ayan Mukerji

Produced by: Karan Johar

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, Anupam Kher, Supriya Pathak, Rahul Khanna, Kashmira Shah

It's Kinda Like: Overboard meets Maid to Order, without the amnesia?

This week's Bollywood movie is a great complement to last week's Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. Both movies came out the same year, and both star Ranbir Kapoor. And between the two, he shows off his versatility, playing two opposite characters in the two films. (Both of which films, by the way, were delightful.)

Both films begin with the same circumstances: school is almost out, and the college students are graduating. And, both Kapoor's characters -- Harpreet Singh Bedi in Rocket Singh and Siddharth "Sid" Mehra in Wake Up Sid -- haven't been doing so well in school. But there the similarity ends. HP Bedi is earnest, ambitious, and hardworking, just not great at school. You can see what happens to him in his movie. Sid, on the other hand, is the spoiled partyboy son of uber-rich parents, barely scraping by in school because he can't be bothered to put in any work. He loves his carefree existence -- until graduation, when his slacker friends have somehow managed to squeeze out passing grades, leaving him alone at the bottom. He is, of course, super angry at them for this. To top it off, his dad wants him to start right away working in the office at the family business.

At their graduation party, Sid meets Aisha (Konkona Sen Sharma, who I'm pleased to see keeps getting cast in better and better films). Aisha has moved to Mumbai all on her own that very afternoon, leaving everyone she knows, in search of a dream job. She's a little older than Sid and anxious that he not get "the wrong idea," since they're hitting it off so awfully well. He shows her the city and they exchange numbers; she's thankful to find ONE friend in Mumbai, at least.

And of course Sid's time in the office doesn't go so well, despite the fancy SUV he's promised if he comes to work for a whole two weeks. After a falling-out, he leaves home and with nowhere else to go, crashes at Aisha's place. Hilarity ensues, mostly based on Sid's total inability to take care of himself. (See? Like Overboard meets Maid to Order!)

While Rocket Singh is a quirky, understated movie that feels like an indie, Wake Up Sid feels more like an 80s film: it's more exuberant, and slightly goofy. Kapoor is equally likeable in both roles, and in Wake Up Sid he's charmingly petulant. And the costume design is equally delightful, with him cycling through a neverending (and enviable) wardrobe of superhero, comic book, and Star Wars t-shirts (which of course are chosen for the scenes, well done designers). (I believe he also has Spongebob sheets.) The music, too, is really catchy -- heavily acoustic guitar based, for a true-feeling modern college graduate feel. (Similar to the music from 3 Idiots.)

Here's a song from early in the film -- see his adorable carefree ways? And this song is *ridiculously* catchy. ("Kya Karoon" loosely translates to "What should I do?," or "What do I do?")

Just like in Overboard and Maid to Order (I LOVE those movies!), Sid's transformation/coming-of-age is immensely satisfying to watch, while not being overly unrealistic. And the film's question is how to become the *right amount* of grown up; it's possible to go too far -- or at least far enough to become just no fun at all.

Verdict: I kind of loved this movie. Watch it, and go through your own end-of-school, beginning-of-summer transformation. Enjoy, and happy summer!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It Takes Two . . . to Make a Coincidence

I just watched TWO completely unrelated pieces of media, which both incorporated a certain song. And in each piece, characters used the song as a sort of camaraderie test: if you knew the lyrics, you were of an age, and could be friends. A sort of communal open-secret guilty pleasure, if you will.

What were the pieces of media?
1. The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds -- which, though predictable in structure and plot (cause really, I mean helloooo) was actually, in its dedicated snarkiness, quite hilariously delightful!
2. Episode 21 ("Mamma Mia") of Season Three of 30 Rock

What was the song? If you haven't guessed from the post title, perhaps you fail the test? See below. (I think for my contemporaries I might have picked "Ice Ice Baby" . . . thoughts?)


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year

(Netflix streaming of Bollywood movies = awesome!)

Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, 2009
Directed by: Shimit Amin
Produced by: Yash Raj Films

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Shazahn Padamsee, Sharon Prabhakar, Gauhar Khan, Prem Chopra, Manish Choudhary

It's Kinda Like: If Wes Anderson directed Office Space, a little bit . . . mixed with some IT Crowd, but serious.

(Note: Beware of Netflix film descriptions; this is the blurb from their site: "Versatile Bollywood talent Ranbir Kapoor stars in this romantic comedy as Rocket Singh, a salesman hustling his trade in a flush economy. In fact, Singh is performing so well at work that he decides to start a company -- within the same company. In his effort to keep his venture under wraps, Singh soon adds con artist to his list of credentials." Did they WATCH the movie? Approximately 75% of this is Entirely, Entirely False. His name is NOT Rocket Singh, he's sucking at work, the economy is NOT necessarily great, and he's NOT a con artist; his whole thing is being completely honest with everyone. Nice going, interns who apparently wrote this blurb.)

This movie was really great! And with a very "Western Cinema Indie Film" aesthetic -- quirky, understated, actors that look like Real People instead of plastic heroes. The opening reminded me a little of something like Rushmore, or The Royal Tenenbaums, with its offbeat, stylized approach to cinematography and characterization. No dance numbers, no Hot Romantic B-story, but an excellent satisfying underdog story. A quiet, quirky comedy, or maybe a comedy-drama -- with the necessary Terrible Things happening around the intermission, as per the Bollywood structure.

Ranbir Kapoor performs admirably as our hero, Harpreet Singh Bedi (not "Rocket," Netflix!), a hopeful, earnest college graduate who didn't exactly get the best grades ever. But he knows how to deal with people. Kapoor is adorably forthright, decked out in a neverending palette of stripes (at once childlike AND an indication that he's on the Straight and Narrow) and a dizzying array of colored turbans. At the outset, he's kind of like a little old man-child (not unlike Rushmore): he wears horizontal striped T-shirts like Ernie, he dances in that embarrassing dad way, he wears *short-sleeved buttondowns,* he's rocking the turban and the beard (no one else is Sikh in the film but his grandpa, forcing him visually even more into the minority), and he seems cheerfully unconcerned by his uncoolness. "HP," as his friends call him, is determined to get a great job like all his friends, so he decides to go into sales--he's a people person, after all. Sales of what? Who cares! Wherever he can get an interview.

Here, look how cute he is:

Far from the suave con man that Netflix indicates he is, HP is actually wide-eyed and innocent, unaware of the cutthroat techniques employed by businessmen. His new mentor, Nitin (played with excellent smarminess by Naveen Kaushik, sporting some truly awesome douchebaggish facial hair), quickly shows him both the quick thinking needed by salesmen, and the routine dirty tricks. HP is appalled by the casual dishonesty employed by his new colleagues.

Through a complicated series of events, HP finds himself running a rival company from within the bigger company. In an Office Space type way, he's quietly subversive, while maintaining his own personal integrity.

The characters in this film are all slightly unexpected -- again a la Wes Anderson. Since it's not your typical Bollywood Romance, the characters have that real-life tinge; like in The Royal Tenenbaums they come off as *slightly* sad, with a hint of wilted skeeviness, as if you're made uncomfortable by your own voyeurism of their perfectly ordinary lives. Harpreet Singh lives in a flat with his grandpa, who is so gleefully young for his age that they're more like cranky brothers. Giri (D. Santosh), the IT guy, is like an Indian version of Roy from The IT Crowd: greasy curly hair, unkempt appearance, nearly horizontal posture in his desk chair, personal schedule entirely unconcerned with the actual time of day, and an open predilection for "porn," which in this case being a family movie is pictures of ladies in swimsuits. Koena the receptionist (Gauhar Khan) is always being hit on -- but she's not really THAT hot, or scantily-dressed or anything, she's just better looking than anyone else in the office. They're ordinary, with the reality-volume turned up a notch. Stylized.

I think just the premise is enough; a lot more happens that I won't spoil for you. Suffice it to say, it's a great underdog movie with an awesome villain (Prem Chopra as Mr. Bedi, the boss, with his perfectly-kept frownyface mustache), a quiet and entirely engaging hero in Harpreet Singh, a delightfully dangerous predicament (starting a rival company from inside), and a satisfying conclusion. A nice-looking, well made film. Enjoy!

(This trailer gives the *most* accurate flavor of the trailers that I could find . . . )

Friday, May 14, 2010

How to be Fascinating

(Or, how to be the coolest ten-year-old around.)

Step one: Buy a scooter. I have this one; it's the Razor A5-Lux:

Step two: Fall off it.

The combination of these two things (and the accompanying bandaids that ensue) will surely earn you street cred with fifth-graders nationwide. You will receive comments like: "Whoooooa, where'd you get a scooter with wheels that big?" and "Wow, what happened to you?" and "This one time, I had a scrape so big that you could see the fat under it!"

(Don't worry--I'm fine. ;o)

I was having a very fantastic ten-year-old sort of day, though. Scootin' around in my jean pedalpushers and giant sneakers, scrapin' my knee like a scamp, scootin' down to get some ice cream, all under the breezy-treesy warmth of a May afternoon. Ahhh, the approaching end of a school year. Is there any better feeling? Even if you're not IN school anymore.

Also: a scooter IS a great way to be fascinating. It turned the heads of all kinds of people, including fifth graders, old ladies with walkers, the guy behind the counter at the Chinese bakery who's never before been inclined to conversation, and hipsters who *also* have scooters.

It's probably a bonus amount of interesting since I'm neither a boy nor a hoodlum. That's what I'm here for. Bringing you cognitive dissonance since 1978.

Enjoy your May day!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Koi . . . Mil Gaya

Since it's nearing summertime and everyone is in kind of a crazy mood (ever try to teach school in the month of May? Thank god I get to teach drama and not, say, math), here's an extra-silly selection for Bollywood of the Week.

Koi . . . Mil Gaya, 2003

Directed & Produced by: Rakesh Roshan

Starring: Rekha, Hrithik Roshan, Preity Zinta, Rakesh Roshan

It's Kinda Like: ET meets Flowers for Algernon, aka Charley, meets The Nutty Professor. There are also parts that remind me of The Sound of Music. Crazy-squee!

The title means "I've . . . Found Someone," which is pleasingly ambiguous in reference. To whom do you refer, O mysterious I? Your wanna-be girlfriend? Or a Visitor From Beyond . . .

Hrithik Roshan, awesome dancer extraordinaire, plays Rohit, our simple-minded hero. Left thusly, we are led to understand, from a car accident resulting from his father's obsession with UFOs, he nevertheless leads a mostly peaceful and adorable existence living with his mom and playing with all his 11-year-old friends. (Roshan is super cute and appealing in this role, too. Awww!)

He's also got an awfully pretty lady for a friend: Nisha, played by Preity Zinta. She's fond of him in the same way that she'd be fond of a neighbor kid. BUT, of course, all that changes when . . . the ALIENS come. Because they've been accidentally PHONED. From HOME. And one alien gets left behind. (Sounding familiar, film fans?) Vocab lesson: Rohit and Nisha call their adorable blue alien friend Jadoo, which means MAGIC. You will learn this when they sing the hilarious song of the same name. And you will not be able to forget it afterwards, so insistent are they on saying that word. Jadoooooooooo . . . . .

Just like a certain alien whom Terry Pratchett has observed resembles a friendly turd in a bike basket, Jadoo is good at things like healing . . . including maybe brains? Begin Flowers for Algernon segment of plot. And both plots unfold together, more or less as you would think. (With pauses for Sound-of-Music-like jaunts with adults and children through the lovely green and mountainous Canadian landscapes -- riding on adorable scooters. Awwww!)

This movie is kinda super silly -- the alien's animatronic and CG nature is hilariously lo-tech (even F.T, aka Friendly Turd, is more realistic), and the song they sing with the aliens kinda made me laugh uproariously and not in the good way. And it also turns into The Nutty Professor, complete with basketball game. Whaaa, you ask? Whaaa indeed.

That being said, Hrithik is very appealing and endearing in his role, and Preity Zinta is always fun too. Plus the kids are great -- and it's fun to watch him interacting with them as if he's just one more in the gang. He moves well both as a dancer and an actor, and the dances (choreographed by the cheeky Farah Khan) are pretty adorable as well. This dance was apparently the one that garnered Farah Khan her award (note the references to classic Hollywood dance sequences -- part of why I love her!). He's just now starting to gain some surprise physical dexterity, from his helpful alien friend:

(Plus: in 2003, this actually won BEST MOVIE at India's Filmfare Awards --their Oscars-- as well as Best Actor for Hrithik with an extra Best Performance award, AND Best Director and Best Choreography. Is this movie, therefore, better than I thought? They even made a SEQUEL, I've just learned. I. Must. See. This. Sequel.)

The Verdict: Silly as all get-out, but silly in that old-kids-movie-you-used-to-love way, and similarly endearing. Like watching an old 80s movie. You know it's cheesy, and you know you love it.

Here's the trailer, for your viewing pleasure:

Friday, April 30, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Chance Pe Dance

(Can I just say, Netflix streaming on the Wii is awesome!)

Chance Pe Dance, 2010

Directed by: Ken Ghosh

Produced by: Ronnie Screwvala

Starring: Shahid Kapoor, Genelia D'Souza

It's Kinda Like: One of those "I'm going to make my way in B/Hollywood!" films, plus a dash of So You Think You Can Dance and a smidgin of (Insert Underdog Dance Team Film Here)

Overall, I found this movie delightful, though hardly a Serious Film Experience. Shahid Kapoor (the New Bollywood Hotness) is teen-idol dreamy, AND in this film, also adorably goofy and a funny physical actor (which I think is even better). The opening sequence with one long take of well-timed morning routine tasks, gently reminiscent of Chaplin and/or Rube Goldberg, is a great example of the carefree and slightly wacky tone of this film.

I mean, the base premise already has my attention: Young Person making their way in the world, taking odd jobs while slogging through the bottom ranks of the film industry. After everything in his life of course goes wrong, he winds up having to sleep in his car and take a job as a dance teacher for a crew of ornery middle-schoolers. (Sound familiar, people who know me? ;o)

Shahid is clearly the draw in this film -- his female star Genelia D'Souza is kind of a cipher, without much interesting to add (in fact, Wikipedia tells me they filmed half of it with a different female star first). Again, the plot is more or less your typical underdog film, but like all of these things, it's the details that make the movie unique. All the scenes of his Acting Career are really funny (like warming up in the mirror, and trying to audition for a commercial with a six-year-old costar), and the kids he winds up teaching are also hilarious and endearing. Awwww! And, most of the music sequences in the movie are stylized and/or cheesy-retro, very lighthearted and fresh-feeling.

It also feels a *little* like a kids' film (not that Bollywood really differentiates, which I think is great) -- for example, there's a number convincing the students that dance is Actually Awesome and Not For Losers -- it actually contains the lines (and yes, actually in English) "Dance is smokin, dance is moonwalk, Dance is groovin, makes the world round" and "Dance is super cool, Dance is hot hot ... You wanna hit big, there is no shorcut, So now get up, you gotta move your butt butt butt." But it's adorable, so it's OK. Here's the Music Video version, with some cheesy/hilarious editing:

Having what feels like a very similar career, I can't help being fascinated by the random details revealed. When he auditions on-camera, they have him hold up a chalkboard under his face, with his name and *phone number* on it. That seems odd, right? Is that normal? And the enormous, gorgeous multipurpose room at that school (a room still filled with crap, like every multi-use room) looks more like a church, with its huge banks of skylights, its second-level balcony and its excellent hardwood floors. Again -- normal, or movie-ridiculous? (And those bathrooms -- they're cavernous! Not to mention his crappy bare studio apartment. Is land really that cheap in Mumbai?)

Cute goofy star, endearing hilarious children (a cameo of a HUGE So You Think You Can Dance poster!) AND to top it all off, Shahid is also a genuinely good dancer. I watched the Making Of video for the song "Pump It Up," and it was amusing to hear the director recount how he realized that Shahid could actually do the whole dance all the way through (gasp!) so they could shoot the number more like a concert film than a music video. Here's the song in question, the video from the movie (look out ladies; he's even Super Ripped . . . they also point out in the Making Of video that he hasn't just got a six-pack, but an eight-pack -- videos of which you can ALSO find on YouTube):

Verdict: Adorable and not *too* silly; actors, dancers, and/or educators will probably find it extra adorable. A nice modernish take on the classic Underdog Showbiz Movie (can you say reality show?).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Understanding Comics" = Understanding Everything

When I was in college, I spent some time between quarters volunteering in my friend Colleen's classroom -- the most well-connected kindergarten teacher you'll ever meet. I had a great time with the kids; my task was primarily helping them with computer literacy. (FYI -- naming things makes a big difference in kindergarten-land; there was MUCH DISTRESS whenever Pooky was on the fritz.)

I love reading to kids (if my job consisted entirely of reading stories to children all day long, I'd be the happiest person on earth) so I would bring in some of MY favorite books to read to them, and towards the end of my volunteering time, I brought in the book pictured at left: The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish -- words by Neil Gaiman, pictures by Dave McKean. (It's delightful -- here's a preview and some more info.) One little girl piped up, "Hey, I know that book! He's my godfather!"

It's true. This little girl was named Sky McCloud, which I knew. What I then learned from Colleen after school was that her dad, Scott McCloud, is a comics artist who pals around with Neil Gaiman (the girls' godfather) and Dave McKean and all sorts of other cool people. AND, he wrote this awesome book which I just read: Understanding Comics. (See! That story totally had a point.)

Now, I may be tooootally behind the times here -- Understanding Comics came out in 1993, and I've only just read it now. BUT, I highly recommend it -- to anyone who's interested at ALL in art, storytelling, or the art of storytelling.

It's so awesomely meta: a comic book about comics. Within its pages, he manages to work in thoughts on: line, color, the Bayeux Tapestry, Dadaism, hieroglyphs, manga, cave paintings, movies, space, time, and human perception. Among other things. All with a witty, unassuming, measured, clear style that makes Total Sense.

McCloud uses the modern conceptions of comics as a starting place, and then strips away everything you thought you knew about it. He builds up a basic definition of the form, and then starts building it back up again from scratch, beginning with the dawn of history and the perception of the human face. Cool, huh?

And take note, engineer-types: there are GRAPHS. GRAPHS about ART. (It reminded me of Un-Scripted's flashes of brilliant improv-math.)

Within his many-inclusive definition of comics he includes Hogarth's The Harlot's Progress and The Rake's Progress (I love Hogarth!), Egyptian tomb paintings, and your favorite picture book from childhood. What other tome could draw lines between Rene Magritte, Edvard Munch, and Scrooge McDuck?

Understanding Comics is a fantastically thoughtful book that, indeed, also made me laugh quite often -- either with humor, or with glee in just how awesome a point he was making. Using the language of comics, he explains the language of comics. Each chapter is simple and well-thought-out, with the chapter's storyline laid out with great use of words, pictures, and/or lack of either and/or both. The book shows great artistic skill and an enormous breadth of knowledge of the subject at hand. It will cause you to think about, oh, Everything, with new perspective. (And there's a great concise definition/defense of art in the last chapter. Hooray!)

I say again, if you're interested at all in how stories are made and/or perceived, you should read this book. What's it called again? Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud. (Hey, I know that guy . . . . . .'s wife and kids. Hope they're all doing great--it's been years!)

Side note: The McCloud girls were returned to my peripheral brain in 2006 when it was announced (on BoingBoing?) that the whole family was going on a 50-state road trip for the book-tour launch of Making Comics. The whole family was going, including the girls, who'd be taking a year off school -- they took that opportunity to be "home-schooled," using their trip as an excuse to write, do research, and create and produce interviews. Is that not the coolest?!?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: My Name is Khan

Yes, Bollywood fans -- this is the MOVIE THAT I'M IN. WOO! And so is my friend Dave. And perhaps someone you know, if you live in the Bay Area.* Don't get too excited, we're just extras. BUT, nevertheless you can totally see me, even if tiny or partially obscured (Dave, on the other hand, is almost front and center) -- onscreen with Kajol. And Shah Rukh Khan. EEEEE! ;o)

My Name is Khan, 2010

Directed by: Karan Johar

Produced by: Hiroo Yash Johar, Gauri Khan

Starring: Shahrukh Khan, Kajol

It's Kinda Like: People have said Forrest Gump, or alternatively Rain Man, though I don't think either of those comparisons is apt . . . Maybe like Mr. Charley Goes To Washington?

Note: If you wanna see it, it *might* still be playing somewhere near you; it opened about six weeks ago and so it's probably mostly gone from theaters. I found a couple listings: the Plaza 4 in Campbell, the place that used to be the Naz 8 in Fremont and is now the Big Cinemas 7, and some elsewhere in the country. But if you missed it, don't be sad -- I'm sure it'll be on Netflix in no time! This was a Big Deal movie -- highest-grossing overseas opening for an Indian film, and second-highest at home. You'll get to see it, I bet!

I was totally excited to see this movie (cause I was IN it) and also totally surprised by how it turned out. This is director Karan Johar's fourth film, and a departure from his other work -- he's also directed Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham(2001), and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998; another SRK/Kajol megahit). Those films were your more typical Bollywood romance/comedy/tragedy/romances (can I say romantragicomedy?), all starring SRK, centered around individuals in a small circle of acquaintances. (Even though KKKG takes place in India and England, the focus is on the people, not so much the locations.) While starting from similar ideas of love and family, My Name is Khan takes on some larger World Issues, with both a personal perspective AND a global one. Johar makes the film feel intensely personal -- for a whole lot of different characters, not just the main stars -- while he delves into complicated events and issues that resonate across the world.

It's always amazing how much storyline gets packed into the average Bollywood film, and this seems to be many more films than usual, packed into one. The personal level is the story of our hero Riswan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), his childhood in India, his emigration to California, and his relationship with his own family and with Mandira (Kajol). The individual-versus-the-world story is the result of Khan's travels through the country, on a mission to meet the American president and say to his face, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist." These two branching storylines provide the frame on which to hang a whoooole lot of story.

As we travel with our hero Khan, we range far and wide through time, space, and subject matter. My Name is Khan is set in pre-vs-post-9/11 America; home base is San Francisco and the fictionalish Bay Area suburb of "Banville." There is really a lot of California and SF in the film, too, both in terms of screen time and in terms of detail. They were shooting here for several months, and it shows. Lots of San Francisco streets, buildings, locations, transportation -- it really feels like they're there. (Love Aaj Kal (2009) is also "set" in SF, for what feels like 15 minutes, despite the Golden Gate Bridge in the title logo.) San Francisco feels like a place where they live, and where others live; they go running around Stowe Lake, they visit the Palace of Fine Arts, they ride the bus and the cable car, they walk across streets pitted with old railway tracks. It's a home at street level, not just at tourist-attraction level.

Travelling is a major part of the film, though, and we certainly travel in both time and space along this storyline: from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., Georgia, Los Angeles, and India; both in the film's present, late 2009, and all the way back to the main character's childhood.

As our hero travels, Riswan Khan also visits many major themes. He has what we now I guess get to call an autism spectrum disorder; he's got Asperger's Syndrome. (At this, I thought, "OooOOooohh, so THAT's why he was talking so strangely in the scene where we're waiting in line behind him! ACTING!") He does a great job embodying the character, too -- he's embraced his character's physical tics and emotional difficulties, but his Riswan is still a full character who's resourceful, intelligent AND funny. Unlike in Rab ne bana di jodi, where SRK plays a similarly endearing introvert BUT also gets to break out of character and play the Cool Guy, Riswan persists throughout. We can learn about his character from the character himself, without flashy "Look at the REAL Shah Rukh Khan!" shortcuts.

More, the film's not really about his syndrome, in the way that Some Inspiring Film Or Other might be; he doesn't "overcome" his disability or anything (although "We Shall Overcome" is actually a major part of the movie, haha); it's just a facet of his personality -- he just IS that way. Speaking of things he "just is," Khan is also a Muslim (both the actor and the character). It's a little more about that, in two intersecting ways: there's the Muslim/Hindu tension between Indians, and then there's the anti-Muslim prejudice in America, post-9/11. Usually the Muslim-Hindu tension isn't a subject that comes up in films about America, so it's interesting to see human relations portrayed along these lines, especially when it gets complicated by 9/11 and irrational prejudice, as when the movie portrays prejudice against Sikhs, who are neither.

As Shah Rukh Khan has said (as quoted in Wikipedia), "it’s not about a disabled man’s fight against disability. It’s a disabled man’s fight against the disability that exists in the world — terrorism, hatred, fighting." While following an endearing character whom we care about, the film touches upon TSA airport searches, autism awareness, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Afghanistan, hate crime, investigative journalism, sibling rivalry, conflicts of religion, snitching, presidential politics . . . yet it's never really preachy or obvious, except about one thing. As my roommate's observed, Bollywood movies at their core often reward the hero for essentially holding fast to being a good person -- and this film is no exception. This is global life at street level, and the bottom line is that people should be nice to each other. Period.

The Verdict: Critics generally agree with me -- it's a good film to see. Fun and enlightening to see some very American things from an outside perspective (and to hear American dialogue written by Indians). Also fun to see San Francisco in a movie (and maybe your friends and neighbors)! A little long -- silly AMCs, with no intermission! -- but well-acted, entertaining, and beautifully shot. (And often funny. "No - Khan. Khhhhhhhhan. From the epiglottis.")

Random Note: This is one of those Modern films with no dance sequences, just montages under the songs, which is fine -- but there's been an odd choice to not subtitle the song lyrics. Seems retro to me; they used to do that for old Bollywood films. I wonder if they did it so as not to be distracting from the imagery? I mean, you can usually tell what feeling the song is meant to convey, and there's often some important-ish plot movement during these montages. It just seemed odd, that's all.

(This is just a trailer, not the entire movie sequence, but it's still un-subtitled. Ya see?)

*It is So Funny how many people have added themselves to the IMDB listing for this film, all as uncredited extras. Hey, I'm a "Sports Fan (uncredited)" too, guys! Maybe it's time to add myself to IMDB, eh?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Avatar vs. The Dark Crystal . . . Jim vs. Jim, FIGHT!

Dear readers,

Last week I saw Jim Henson's 1982 film The Dark Crystal for what was essentially the first time. Yes, I'd seen bits and pieces of it for years -- my best friend's mom was a big fan and it seemed to be on a lot when I was at his house. But this was my first time watching it from start to finish, believe it or not (I think when I was little I found it both boring and scary).

It made me think of Avatar, that film I didn't want to see and ended up seeing anyway. I found myself comparing the two films in several ways. There's the obvious storyline comparison, both of them being extremely archetypal hero-saves-strange-world myths (Avatar having been compared to everything from Dances With Wolves to Fern Gully). There's the strange-new-world-itself comparison. And then there's the actual physical (or "physical") enactment of that world -- Henson with puppets, Cameron with computers -- that I thought about the MOST.

I listened to the Fresh Air interview with James Cameron (twice), and watched the "making-of" documentary on The Dark Crystal, so I feel like I have some background on both, and the similarities continue. Both films created an entire ecosystem worth of plants, animals, and landscapes. Both ecosystems involved interesting combinations of plants and animals, blurring the lines between those distinctions. Both director/auteurs did way more research, development, and design of said ecosystem than anyone will ever see or notice. But I just can't get over the fact that, while James Cameron and his team achieved simply AMAZING effects with their creature design and their motion capture technology, Jim Henson also managed to achieve amazing effects, AND it was almost 30 years ago, AND everything he made is also tangible. Someone actually had to MAKE all that stuff.

Look at that world! (I think the end of this clip is part of what scared the crap out of me as a small child; I didn't remember much, but I remembered THAT part. ;o)

Yes, it's true -- someone also had to make all the stuff for Avatar, and create textures, and physically sculpt (there was probably some sculpting involved, right, digital artists?) and computer sculpt, and animate, and it probably took hours and hours and hours and hours. BUT again, I can't get over the fact that someone (several someones) built and operated all those amazing puppets, and actually had to, you know, deal with stuff falling off and breaking and getting wet and etc. They had to first design the world, and THEN figure out how to make it happen, within the realm of physical possibility. I mean, there are landscapes in The Dark Crystal, like the scenes by the riverbank, where they first had to conceive of what it should look like, and THEN go find things to make it out of -- whether it was sculpting rocks in certain formations, or finding real vegetation and altering it to give the effect they were looking for. They built this stuff with their HANDS.

I mean, look at these puppets. Just look at them.

And not only did they build this stuff with their hands, but they also had to animate them with their hands -- or legs or entire bodies, in most cases. Live for each take. And Henson and crew were already doing lots of complicated stuff with cable-controlled or radio-controlled puppet parts, so that there were a whole lot of people working on each creature. And this was only the early '80s; I remember watching shows on Henson's effects in the late '80s/early '90s, and there was already some motion-cap-to-live-computer-puppetry going on. I can't help thinking that if he hadn't died so early (stupid pneumonia!), he would have made some amazing innovations or even beaten Cameron to the extreme-motion-cap punch.

And the stories of both are rather silly anyway (sorry, Mr. Henson!), since it's the details that make the experience, in both cases. It's fun to compare the two: extreme hi-tech vs. extreme lo-tech (plus hi-tech-for-its-time).

Who do YOU think wins this fight?

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week? Bas Ek Pal

JUST for those of you who might be thinking that I love every Bollywood movie I see . . . is this movie. Which, I have to say, was terrible. Boy oh boy. Mountain View Library! You have failed me in this!

Bas Ek Pal, 2006

Directed and Written by: Onir (why, Onir? Why? Wherefore hast thou wrought such a film?)

Produced by: Manohar P. Kanungo, Shailesh R. Singh

Starring: Juhi Chawla, Urmila Matondkar, Jimmy Shergill, Sanjay Suri, Rehaan Engineer, Yashpal Sharma

Do you see the photo at left? This is the cover under which I rented this film. Would you expect that in a film advertised with such an image -- look! Pink! dancing! smiling! happy-ness! -- most of the film would be concerned with domestic violence, prison rape, broken friendships and weird, creepy revenge?

No. I did not either.

The *concept* for the story is *sort* of interesting, if I tell it to you in words. (And since you're probably not going to watch it, or care if I spoil it, I will this time!) Bas Ek Pal means, cavalierly translated by me, "One Moment is Enough." Nikhil (Sanjay Suri) has returned to India from college in Boston, determined to settle back down to a hip Mumbai life -- though he's going through some culture shock. HowEVER, at a club, he meets a girl and becomes obsessed with her. She refused to tell him her name, so he starts repeatedly showing up there in hopes of meeting her again. The next time they meet, he's with friends and she's with a boyfriend -- a boyfriend with a GUN! Yelling! Fighting! And in one ill-timed split second: Shooting -- doh! Nikhil's best friend Rahul (Jimmy Shergill) is shot! From a gun that was in Nikhil's hand!

Nikhil, fresh from the USA, goes to horrible, developing-world jail. There are totally creepy dudes there. (Including an unexpectedly welcome creepy dude: Yashpal Sharma, playing "Swamy" -- he was a low-level bad guy in both Lagaan and Aaja Nachle. This is how weird the movie was -- I was happy to see a BADGUY I recognized.) No one will help poor Nikhil, including his relatives and the friends who were present at the shooting incident. Commence the languishing in prison and the working-out montages.

Fast-forward some large amount of time. He's out! He's free! He's got a badass goatee! But his friends don't want to see him anymore, the chick he was obsessed with--the dream that sustained him through his horrible prison sentence--is engaged to his sad now-paraplegic friend, and basically his life sucks.

So what does Nikhil do? Why, helplessly stalk her because he's got nothing left. Meanwhile Rahul blames him for his new disability, but he's secretly afraid the chick just pities him, not loves him. Creepy love-triangle things commence.

AND, their creepy alcoholic friend Steve (really, people? Steve?) is not only alcoholic but also an abuser -- and there are revealed some love-triangle things happening on THAT front, involving his wife.

Stalking! Attacking! Domestic violence! Blood! Murder! Boy, it really makes you think of two people dancing, doesn't it?

Now, this story on its own has the potential to be . . . at least an OKAY film, right? The idea of a guy taken straight from Boston to an Indian prison for a crime he didn't commit -- that has some pull, right? The idea that one ill-conceived moment can throw your life *radically* off course has SOME merit, right?

ExCEPT that this film managed to execute this story in the world's most shallow, creepy, unfeeling way possible. And the dream woman, the instant mystery, the comfort in times of sorrow -- she's played as the most plastic, languid, artificial, Barbie-tastic girl I've ever seen. Even her crying/whimpering/emotional sounds (there's a lot of crying in this movie) are afterdubbed -- DUBBED! as if she couldn't quite swing it on set -- and it STILL sounds horribly acted. Urmila Matondkar -- this was not the role for you.

This movie started out plastic and unaffecting and just got . . . weirder and weirder. Note to filmmakers: surprising suspenseful events close to the end of the movie, especially those involving guns and/or shooting people, should NOT make me laugh out loud.

Not one character was really likeable -- OK, the main character was pretty likeable in the beginning. And then he became a CREEPY STALKER. Why on earth anyone would fall immediately in love with the Barbie chick, let alone this guy, is pretty unfathomable. So then the irrationally passionate language he would use to describe her, coupled with the crazy desperate way he was spying on her, and her DUBBED CRYING, combine for a Gale-Force Weirdness from No-Sense Town. (And she appeared ickily older than he was, because she was so plastic -- it was like the world's youngest cougar.) Everything about the movie is slightly skeevy; the setting, the acting, the club, the music, the actors, the relationships, the dialogue, the people's names (STEVE?), the listless way they would drift through their lives and languidly betray and/or attempt to kill each other -- after the movie I was left feeling like I needed to take a shower. (And no, not in a good way.) Those creepy dudes from prison were like a breath of fresh AIR, next to the halfhearted main characters!

And, get this -- after this tirade of creepy, including betrayal, stalking, double-stalking, and bloody murder -- there's a HAPPY ENDING. I KNOW, right? What? From whence came you, o happy ending?

Yeesh. I can't even show you a clip because no one likes this film well enough to post it to YouTube. So let us all now, instead, think of rainbows. Rainbows!

See, I CAN hate a Bollywood film. So you really should see the ones I like, right? ;o)


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: SHOLAY

The box claims it's "The greatest story ever told!" Shall we believe it?

Sholay, 1975

Directed by: Ramesh Sippy

Produced by: G.P. Sippy

Starring: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan, Asrani

It's Kinda Like: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Seven Samurai . . . with hints of Paint Your Wagon (cowboy action heroes singing?) It's heavily influenced by Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and apparently there are hints of Peckinpah as well. (This is in the genre of films referred to sometimes as "curry westerns." Ha ha.)

I gotta say, sometimes Bollywood film covers are really misleading. I've seen posters for Sholay often, and it looks like a crazy bloodthirsty epic blockbuster action film. I mean, look at it: Guns! Awesome dudes fighting! Grunting! Grimaces! . . . but then it had this song fairly early in it!

A partial translation of this song's lyrics is as follows, according to
We will not break this friendship
I may break my strength, but I will not leave your side.
Oh, my victory is your victory, your loss is my loss
Listen, oh my friend
Your pain is my pain, my life is your life
That is how our love is.


Sholay is a pretty famous-slash-infamous film; released in 1975, its original run lasted for five years (ten? the internet disagrees with itself; confirmation not found in brief search) -- it was the highest-grossing Indian film to date and may still be,* and it was also the longest-running.** (You can see posters for Sholay in the background of Om Shanti Om, which I recognized, even though I'd never seen Sholay at that point. Just one more reason to see it!) It helped launch the career of the uberfamous Amitabh "The Big B" Bachchan (known to western audiences as the movie star idolized by the hero in Slumdog Millionaire), and Amjad Khan, and is generally referred to as a pop culture landmark.

Jai, the serious one (Amitabh) and Veeru, the funny one (Dharmendra) are our heroes, cheerful yet brave outlaws hired by an ex-cop (who had once arrested them) to carry out an important task. Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) needs their help to capture a notorious, psychotic bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), who commmitted a horrible crime against the Thakur and his family. (Sholay means "Embers," referring to the Thakur's slow-burning rage.)

Not knowing quite what to expect, not even the plotline -- I sincerely enjoyed it! It's truly a Western done by Bollywood, with very strong elements from both worlds. Some might argue that that makes it a weird, incongruous film -- but who cares about those people? ;o) Indeed, the film started out as a flop at the box office before its subsequent surge of audience, quite possibly because of its juxtaposed elements.

The Western stuff is really in-genre: the film's first big event is a train robbery, for example. And the film's style feels very modern and "artsy": the editing is creative and effective (and the shots aren't tooooo loooooooong, my big problem with 70s movies), and the stylistic choices of freezeframe and slow motion are taken from Leone and Peckinpah films. The score, too, is inspired by those spaghetti western scores, with non-musical sounds creating an affecting emotional soundscape (like in the flashback scene where Thakur relates what Gabbar Singh did: the creaky swing! Ouughhh, the creaky swing!).

But there's also some good old Bollywood comedy -- Bollywood films are long enough for two movies, after all -- it's a little like a spaghetti western meets a Hope/Crosby Road picture, for all the antics our heroes go through. They spend a very brief time in jail in the charge of a jailer who's doing Charlie Chaplin in The Little Dictator; they flirt with the local sassy chick; they exchange witty repartee; they flip a coin to make important decisions.

Yet the pendulum swings both ways. The comedy made me *actually* laugh, and it's sprinkled throughout the film, not sequestered in the first half. The water tower scene where a thwarted, drunken Veeru threatens to jump off is genuinely funny. (Have you ever heard someone in a movie who's threatening to commit suicide actually *yell* "Suuuuuuiiciiiiiiiiide!") And still, while remaining largely bloodless in that surreal slightly-comic classic film manner (how does one die from a gunshot that results in neither blood nor any visible wound?) the acting, the editing, and the sound design make Gabbar Singh's violent acts truly upsetting. (If you think children and animals are by definition safe, my friend, you are WRONG.) The film aims for both extremes -- and hits both targets.

Though influences from Leone's films are clear, the film felt a lot like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to me, complete with the sense of a smooth surface of comedy covering an ocean of dread. The heroes' interaction is genuinely warm and funny, and even their lazy banter is touching, especially when compared to the stark white widow and the frozen, glaring Thakur. Plus, the culture clash, like in Butch Cassidy, gives the film an extra kick of the surreal. Butch and Sundance travel from the US through New York City to a tiny village in Bolivia; it feels like two modern guys trapped in a nightmare of the past; the film is set in the early 1900s but their costumes (and that rockin' stache) definitely say sixties:

Compare with this photo of Jai and Veeru; similar, eh? Except in their case the culture clash is even more extreme: this movie is set in the PRESENT (1970s). Our heroes are dressed in a white leisure suit and jeans, respectively. They talk about driving cars. Some of the bad guys have machine guns. YET, the train robbery at the beginning is by bandits on horseback with rifles, and the Thakur's village is all dust and tribal clothing. Again, modern guys thrust into a timeless, basal, rural world.

Some Catty Film Criticism: The film looks so much like a Western that my roommate and I, both from Southern California, would have *sworn* it was filmed in the Mojave desert -- exCEPT that it was filmed near Bangalore. We can therefore no longer be cynical about movies filming in "clearly" cheap California locations -- maybe they really ARE in Tunisia! Also, wow, the buildings look so much like all those Spanish mission-style backlot towns where they stage cheesy gunfights -- sloping tiled roofs, low two-story buildings, guys getting shot and toppling off of balconies . . . talk about authentic Western. (And without giving anything away: though the *idea* of the final fight is Noble and Awesome, actually *watching* it is kinda high-larious. Good choice to have him leave the blanket on for most of the movie, I say.)

The Verdict: A classic film that's not just a historical curiosity, but also genuinely enjoyable! The genre blending is fascinating in how the different kinds of stories (revenge western vs. buddy film vs. romance) tie each other up; there's an ending for everyone.

* Apparently now there's a controversy about whether earnings from 3 Idiots have surpassed those of Sholay. Drama!

**(Sholay's record was eclipsed eventually by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which opened in 1995 and was still running continuously as of Oct. 2009.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the Week: Salaam Namaste

The Mountain View library seems to have someone actually curating their Hindi movie collection . . . at least, all the ones I check out from there seem to have some extra social value . . . support your local library! This movie was not just an adorable comedy, it was also a look at the immigrant experience of community in a foreign country.

Salaam Namaste, 2005

Directed by: Siddharth Anand

Produced by: Aditya Chopra, Yash Chopra

Starring: Saif Ali Khan, Preity Zinta, Arshad Warsi, Tania Zaetta

It's Kinda Like: a brief "secret identity" movie becomes a "getting to know you for REALS" movie becomes a slapstick comedy. (ugh, apparently it's a partial remake of Nine Months? It has more of the flavor of Knocked Up.)

Like I said, this is a cheeky modern comedy -- but it's also a sideways look at the experience of the Indian diaspora. Sassy, huh? The characters are all Indian expats living in Melbourne -- and interestingly, none of the plotline involves coming from India, going to India, or characters who live in India. We don't meet anyone's parents, children, or siblings. Everyone is on their own in Melbourne living a new life. We find out in brief narrated slideshows what brought each character there, and it's different for everyone -- it's also not always brought up again, which is a fun twist. We catch a glimpse into someone's backstory, and then that's all we hear about it; it serves to color our experience of that character rather than to advance the plot. (Color, not advance -- I love it!)

What holds this community together, then, if not families? Why, the radio! The film's title comes from the radio station and morning show where the main character Ambar (Preity Zinta) works. Her show involves interviewing Melbourne's successful Indian businesspeople, in order to inspire the community in general. As the film opens, we see her on the radio, and we see her listeners, too, in their own environments, performing mostly solitary activities: bagging groceries, doing the housework, exercising with headphones, cutting hair in a salon. As she speaks, we see them all react, as though they're together -- even though they're all, separately, alone.

(It was interesting to watch this movie since I sometimes listen to the local Indian AM station, which is lots of fun. The call-in portion of any show is really important, and they have shows for all kinds of things: wanna sell your car? get advice from a dentist? share health tips? discuss your investments? Plus they play Bollywood music new and old. It's a fascinating cultural experience: for interested parties in the Bay Area, it's KLOK 1170AM.)

Against this backdrop of the big-yet-small town, our heroine meets (or rather, doesn't meet) our hero: Nick, aka Nikhil Arora (Saif Ali Khan). While Ambar is precise and exacting--she's studying to be a surgeon, after all--Nick is an easygoing chef. We can tell what he thinks of himself, from the obvious touches -- get your tickets to the freezeframe gun show! -- check those Superman boxers and the bright red car! -- to the slightly-less-obvious: he's listening to a song from Dhoom (often-referenced action-movie franchise) in the car.

They *don't* meet in the sense that, because of his problems with getting up on time, he misses his radio interview, causing her to spew vitriol over the airwaves for days, trying to ruin his reputation. (Of course, the restaurant he cooks for is called "Nick of Time." Ha ha.) They have several entertaining yelling matches over the phone about this, causing apoplexies for both their bosses but hilarity for Nick and his friend -- and glee for radio listeners everywhere.

The tagline for the movie is "Let's get to know each other," which happens in two ways, in the way that many Bollywood movies contain both the film and its own sequel. The first "film" is the type of romantic comedy with "dual identities," a la You've Got Mail (sorry Meg Ryan haters, it's the only one I could think of in the moment): the main characters hate each other in one context, and fall in love as strangers in another.

Like the more modern-y films, lots of Salaam Namaste's songs serve as voiceover instead of dance music -- but here's one number where they actually dance (not genius choreography). Our stars have met for what they *think* is the first time, and you'll also see Nick's comic-relief friend Ron (Arshad Warsi), a guy who's only recently discovered women, and is desperately terrible at figuring them out (the first time we meet him, he's chatting up what we can all see is a hooker -- why a hooker would be in the suburbs is another question altogether). And in this clip they're all at an event featured in lots of Bollywood movies as an excuse to get people together: a wedding. Cause, in Australia, doesn't every wedding end in ripping off your clothes and running into the water?

Their hidden identities are revealed pretty fast, and then we get to the *real* plot of the film, the Racy Part. I'll let the adorable stars themselves explain. This gives you an idea of the film's feel and comedy style (this film even has bloopers in the credits, which seems *totally* American-comedy to me).

Aren't they cute? Yes, that's right -- they said "living together." They've fallen in sort-of love, and Nick urges that they should live together -- in separate rooms, of course. Then the getting-to-know-you proceeds apace. Something I've touted about Bollywood before: they have enough screen and story time to show you the roundness of their characters. Nick may have trouble waking up in the morning, but he's no slouch: he's an exacting cook and a neat freak. Ambar's the messy one, though a good decorator; she does, though, have a tendency to yell at him kind of a lot. We see the good times AND the bad, and they're not just comedy-bad, but upsetting-bad.

Because -- scandal! Not only is there *onscreen kissing* in this movie, BUT what you might expect of the logical results of living together. If it's a movie, at least. See if you can figure out what that is:

Scandal! And no, they are NOT married in the above clip. Scandal!

Because they're miles away from their parents, all the characters have to figure out what's going on, as it were, for themselves. A disparate community, all in Melbourne for different reasons, they have to support themselves and each other. They have to be their own family, or make new ones out of the people around them. That also means they have to get to know each other as individuals; they can't be thrown together by the social family structure, they have to find each other in the city and make the effort. Because the concept of Tradition doesn't really play into this film, on the surface at least; it's a modern story in a modern city, about people figuring out how to be modern.

The reasons for moving to Melbourne, revealed in the lightning-flash narrations (voice -- and cameo slapstick -- provided by Abhishek Bachchan!) are a fascinating range of types, from all places in India, from all walks of life, for all reasons. There are those who came in order to consciously forge a new path, following their dreams. We have Ambar, who came on a one-year student exchange program and decided to stay, escaping any number of arranged marriages. We have Nick, who came to go to architecture school as his dad wanted, and ended up following his dream to be a chef. We have Ambar's fellow med student Jignesh (played by Jugal Hansraj), who's a terrible student but just wanted to escape being a sari salesman all his life.

Then there are those characters who are more swept along by the winds of fate: they've changed locations, but their basic personality continues on. There's Nick's restauranteur boss, who went from being a small-scale glutton in India to a large-scale one in Melbourne: new job, character essentially unchanged. There's Ambar's boss, loud-voiced drama queen and chronic hummer, who just wants someone to ask him to sing on the radio. And my personal comedy-relief favorite: Nick and Ambar's landlord (Jaaved Jaffrey), a once-poor, shiftess nobody who won the lottery and has OVERassimilated into Australian society, while remaining essentially the same dirtbag he ever was. "I WAS Indian. WAS," he says. "NOW I'm Australian." Food for thought, eh? ;o) Here's part of his award-winning comic performance:

(Jeez, he looks like a tan Dave Gardner. Who is probably no one you know. But dude, it totally looks like him. Especially with the sideburns. Just sayin'.)

This movie, I must confess, actually made me laugh to the point that I almost sprayed my laptop with my beverage. The side characters are really well done: sometimes clownishly exaggerated, but with committed acting that doesn't feel too over-the-top "winky." They believe themselves. And they're well-balanced by our heroes' self-determined "normality." We're all just trying to live our lives, right? We're all normal to ourselves . . .

The Verdict: A fresh-feeling comedy, with appealing stars, good acting, hilarious side characters, and a hint of modern social dilemma. Me likee!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

An American Bollywood? The Pirate

SOMEone had to get the Netflix queue moving again, right? So upon returning some sadly languishing Bollywood films (that's what Netflix is FOR, roommates -- you can get it again later if you *actually* want to watch it) I received The Pirate and The Party, both of which I'd forgotten were in the queue. I can't wait to watch The Party again; it's a Peter Sellars mostly-silent comedy gem. Last night I watched The Pirate, though, and it struck me that it feels like one of those films that would have traveled to India and separately evolved into Bollywood, Galapagos-style. So I'll present it here as if it was a Bollywood-style review!

The Pirate, 1948

Directed by: Vincente Minelli

Produced by: Arthur Freed

Starring: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland

Songs by: Cole Porter

I'd seen this movie before, and already knew I liked it; Gene Kelly plays a flamboyant, unabashed womanizer and Judy Garland plays a sassy-yet-practical ingenue, and their relationship is filled with both highfalutin' poetic language and very direct cheeky banter. They have a very egalitarian relationship, where they each antagonize the other, and both are thrown off-balance. Only upon a re-viewing did I realize that their relationship, as well as the film as a whole, shares a lot of characteristics with (at least modern) Bollywood films.

There are some things that are different; this is clearly filmed on one set, two TOPS, and might as well be a play. (Indeed, it was based on a Broadway hit of the same name.) The sets are so similar that frankly, it's really confusing where they are at any given time. BUT, the production design shows great attention to detail, and the costumes and dance numbers are, if not entirely over the top, tightly constructed and designed. (They *might* be period-correct, it's hard to say. But the costumes certainly have *commitment.* Oh, those fabulous hats! Oh, those giant skirts! Anne Shirley would be jealous at the size of the puffed sleeves . . . ) The film has been described as a "cult favorite" and was kind of a box office flop, and that may be because it doesn't feel as expansive and lavish as other Hollywood musicals -- but, in the featurette, they describe this film as the culmination of the MGM musical style.

And because it's purportedly the pinnacle of the genre, it has a lot of elements in one concentrated film that feel a lot like staples that Bollywood has embraced. Romance, comedy, sarcasm, dream ballet, fire -- all in one film! Just like Bollywood! It's at once a romantic swashbuckler AND a parody of itself, both on purpose. It was made in the late 40s, but it feels uncommonly modern in some ways, like it's looking right back at you. Maybe that's why critics say it was ahead of its time . . .

Set sometime in the 1600s in the Caribbean (which is itself hilarious: NO ONE makes any pretense to speak in any way like the Spaniards that they purportedly are), the film opens with Judy Garland as Manuela (which the hilarious Americans consistently pronounce "Man-you-ELL-a"), lamenting to her friends about wanting to travel the world, and waxing romantic about Mack "the Black" Macoco, the legendary pirate. Soon her aunt comes to tell her that she's betrothed to Don Pedro, the rotund, middle-aged mayor of the town. (So in Bollywood scorekeeping we have: Young, smart girl -- check. Gaggle of friends -- check. Meddling matchmaker aunt -- check. Overly comic (he's so tiny!) uncle -- check. Fat, rich guy to marry -- check! Agreeing to marry said rich guy because you're a good girl -- check!)

Because Manuela (or Man-you-ELL-a) is a practical girl, she acquiesces -- BUT she desperately longs to see the rest of the Caribbean before she settles down, since Don Pedro (the only "ethnic" actor in the film, and he's clearly GERMAN) has already seen the world and wants no more of it. They all agree that she can make one trip to the ocean (What? she lives in the Caribbean! What?) and come back.

Enter Our Hero, Serafin (played by Gene Kelly in what I suspect is the only role where we get to see what his hair actually looks like!) -- a devil-may-care actor hopped up on ego-juice. Kelly is playing a real character in this film: cocky to the end; no core of "boy next door" as in his other films. (His entrance, cheekily hopping atop a rising load of cargo to address the crowd, really felt like a Bollywood hero's entrance to me, like Shahrukh Khan in . . . almost every film, like when he rides into town on a motorcycle through fire in Billu Barber.)

During his cocky jaunt about town, he sings a song about how there are too many women to remember their names, so he calls them all "Niña" (interestingly, his explanation of why doesn't include the fact that Niña means "daughter" or "little girl," most likely because No One Involved With This Movie Spoke Spanish). It's a fun dance number, with some amazing acrobatics and even some pole dancing! Kelly, lithe and sassy, is really showing off. (And check out his hilarious Douglas Fairbanks moustache! Sassy!)

The song, like all of them in the film, is by Cole Porter, king of the double entendre and the clever rhyme. And in "Niña" like several of the songs in the film, Porter walks an interesting lyrical line between playful and naughty -- the rhythms and the words are very colloquial, so that somehow they come off as *too* sincere, not hidden enough by poetry -- as in the repetition of "till I make ya mine, till I make ya -- till I make ya mine till I make ya mine till I make ya mine . . . " (They actually had to CUT the number "Voodoo" from this film because it was too sexy! How I'd love to see that . . .) Otherwise, the song *itself* -- like many in the film (sorry, Cole!) is really kind of stupid. (But again! Just like Bollywood! It's become a semi-disposable number that's an excuse to stage a flirty dance!)

Of course, when Serafin sees Manyouuuuelllla for the first time, boom he falls straight in love, and gives her all his swashbucklingly best romantic lines. And delightfully, she gets really annoyed and replies as any really practical girl might. Again, almost *too* direct and colloquial. I love it! She pokes right back! (Improvisors, take note: banter banter banter!)

And then it's the typical story, right? Girl leaves boy, boy follows girl with his acting troupe, boy hypnotizes girl during stage act, girl spontaneously creates song-and-dance number . . .

I think this song epitomizes how fantastically un-seriously this movie actually takes itself.
"Mack the Black! From the CaribBEan,
Mack the Black --
or Car -RIB -bean sea."

From the information gleaned from this hypnotism stunt, Serafin decides to BE the pirate (elaborately comic misrepresentation -- check!) in order to stop the wedding (chick in her wedding outfit really early in the film -- check!). There's even tightrope walking involved! Scandal! Plus, there's a dream ballet (thank you, Oklahoma!) involving lots of cool fire and explosions, implied danger, and Gene Kelly dancing with weapons in piratical hot pants. Whooo! I hope you're sitting down, ladies. (I notice whoever titled this YouTube video likely agrees.)

But of course, the secret won't last, and she gets reeeeely mad when she finds out. Fantastically throwing-plates mad. It's a great scene -- and again, has almost-too-real dialogue. Banter! I love it!

So then what? Will he still be able to pull it off and convince her to go with him? What of the REAL Macoco? Who exactly is in danger now? Will there be more singing and dancing? You will FIND OUT, my friend. You will find OUT.

This movie is also the origin of that famously ripped-off song "Be a Clown," which appears only thinly disguised, though in a MUCH better version of itself, as "Make 'Em Laugh" in that *slightly* more famous Kelly vehicle Singing in the Rain. Which, in turn, is a film paid homage to by Bollywood in the movie Om Shanti Om. Aha! Evolution proooooved!

Verdict: I quite enjoy this film. It's got that double-tone I enjoy that Bollywood does so well: both a swashbuckling romance and a parody of one at the same time. It has great dancing and sassy banter, with two consummate performers showing off their skills and being irreverent with each other. It's a wink through history. What more could you want? Join the club of cult-musical fans and see The Pirate.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bollywood Movie of the New Year: 3 Idiots

Whew! Fresh off a New Year, a birthday, and a whole lot of things. Happy New Year, everyone!

Here's a brand-new Bollywood film for the new year, as well. I just got home from seeing it (Fun Fact: If you live in the Bay Area, at least, you can see new Bollywood movies at an AMC near you!) and it was both fun and appropriate for the aforementioned occasions, even!

And it's always great to go see a Bollywood film in a packed house (the first showing was soooold out and I had to hang around for a couple hours to buy tickets for the next -- it *just* opened.). It's like going to see the melodrama: people clap when great things happen, and gasp when terrible things happen, and laugh in great waves at all the funny stuff--AND the accidentally funny stuff. Even when you're all by yourself, as I always am at these places, it feels like you're seeing it with a bunch of friends. (And I've never seen more kids at a movie, and that includes you, Disney. And yes, they were mostly Extremely Quiet.)

[eta: Xeni Jardin did a review of this movie as well, on BoingBoing, located here. Interesting to see the similarities!]

3 Idiots, 2009

Directed by: Rajkumar Hirani (who also directed Lage Raho Munna Bhai)

Produced by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra

Starring: Aamir Khan, R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi, Kareena Kapoor, Boman Irani, Omi Vaidya

It's Kinda Like: a little Dead Poets' Society with a dash of Good Will Hunting -- but WITHOUT Robin Williams -- and a happy ending. (What, it's a comedy! It's not like that's giving anything away.) And there are even MacGyver moments.

I was feeling a little curmudgeonly today, and going to see this movie definitely made me happy. For one, it stars Aamir Khan, whom I enjoy a lot, for a lot of reasons. He produced and starred in Lagaan, a fantastic film. And he's got some clown in his physicality, which means I totally enjoy watching him onscreen. (Plus he kinda reminds me of my Uncle Hessam.) And subject-matter-wise, like I said, 3 Idiots seemed to fit the moment. It's about three friends surviving college and an impromptu 10-year reunion -- and MY 10th is coming up as well; we were born in the same year, awww! (And did I mention I just had a birthday?)

Plus, how can you NOT love a movie that has cameos of both cartoon sperm and the CHICKEN DANCE?

Like Dead Poets' Society, 3 Idiots deals with a repressive educational system, only this one's more immediately practically-oriented: *these* students endure the heckling, the arcane traditions, and the vicious professors in order to graduate and directly get jobs as engineers. The money and the prestige is what they *seek* -- or what their parents seek for them -- not what they already have in order to attend.

The film takes place both in the present-ish, and 10 years from now. Our story opens as a bet is called in: the characters reunite 10 years after graduation. The guy who made the bet in the first place, and initiates the call, is Chatur, a fatuous, self-important asshole (played with slimy fabulousness by Omi Vaidya). He's that guy you love to hate, the school's number-one brownnoser who's mean to his classmates and will do anything to get ahead.

The good guys are the round-faced Farhan (R. Madhavan) and the slightly desperate-looking Raju (Sharman Joshi) -- but our real hero, Rancho (short for Ranchhoddas Shamaldas Chanchad and played of course by Aamir Khan) is nowhere to be found. His best friends haven't seen him in years, in fact -- but Chatur says he knows where Rancho is! is So the road trip begins, while we watch, in flashback, how their story began.

The subject matter is heavy -- the price of repressive education -- but, like Hirani's Munnabhai films, the treatment of that subject is light. Light not because the director *makes* light of serious events (quite the contrary), but because our heroes are funny people. For example, when describing Raju's family, our narrator Farhan says that they're like a 1950s black and white Hindi film: destitute family, mother who loves to complain, chubby unmarried daughter, and father who became paralyzed and had to stop working. As he's describing this, the director switches to black and white for the rest of the scene (and for every scene thereafter in the house). It's funny -- but it's not over-the-top slapstick funny, either; after all, it's a terrible situation! There's gallows humor mixed in, and we all know it's supposed to be there. Hirani stays on the right side of the line.

Similarly, the villain is just ridiculous enough to be funny in that boarding-school "let's all mock the schoolmaster" way, but he still retains enough status to be terrifying. Played by Boman Irani,* who also played the unhinged mobster villain Lucky Singh in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, professor "Virus" has poofy hair and a bushy moustache, a huge gut over which he pulls his white pants, a pronounced lisp, and a permanent snarl. His obsession with competition and efficiency starts out as a hilarious quirk, but quickly proves to have terrible, serious consequences for his students.

There *are* moments of over-the-top filminess, but they're on purpose when the characters are feeling silly, like the big "Bollywood" number here. (This movie is so new there's not much on YouTube -- gasp! -- but here's a preview.) Featuring Our Hero and his love interest Pia (Kareena Kapoor), who turns out to be Virus's daughter -- doh!
You can tell this is silly because during the chorus they're doing -- wait for it -- the chicken dance. THE chicken dance. The CHICKEN DANCE.

There's a love story, as featured in the clip above, but it's a side plot; the real story is the boys' friendship and what happens to them when Rancho, a genuinely curious, creative spirit, meets a system designed to make machines of them all. It's a fascinating glimpse of college in another familiar-yet-strange culture (they have houseboys, like at Oxford -- but the rooms are teensy!) and a continually-unraveling plot that just keeeeeeps twisting -- and pulling you along for the ride.

I really enjoyed this film. The chemistry between the boys is genuine and funny, the acting is good, the message makes me happy as an educator and an artist (be what you WANT when you grow up! be creative and learn for learning's sake!), it's funny and serious without getting too campy OR weepy (or too predictable) and Science Saves the Day! (Aamir Khan also makes a really believable young, awkward college student. Did you know he's like, forty?)

Verdict: Apparently, most critics agree with me: it's a good one! See it in the theater for additional community spirit!

*Interestingly, Boman Irani was also unrecognizeable as Murli/"M," fabulous gay magazine mogul, in Dostana. And not terrifying at all! I love me a good character actor.