Friday, July 27, 2012

Movin' On

Thanks to the fine work of the  multi-talented Awesome Kim , my primary blog has a fresh new look. She did such a good a job, I decided to merge the two blogs. So from now on, my fiftyfiftyme posts past, present and future can be found here:

My fiftyfiftyme posts

Monday, July 23, 2012

Movie 18/50 Love Breakups Zindagi

Love Breakups Zindagi      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

My last post for the fiftyfiftyme challenge was a defence of  Agent Vinod, a movie widely panned as a feeble ripoff of Western action films. This post is about another film that gets trashed, mostly because of deeply held antipathy toward its leads. Defending two such films in a row makes me wonder whether I should rename my blog The Hunting of the Snark.

In her blog Shahrukh Is Love (if you’re not reading it, you really, really should be) my vastly more knowledgeable filmi fellow Kiwi used the phrase “marvellously mediocre” to sum up a film she watched recently. The phrase fits Love Breakups Zindagi so well I just had to steal it, thank you Vanessa!

This film is widely dismissed as awful, largely because of starring Zayed Khan, and those who don’t condemn the film for his presence write it off for having Diya Mirza in it. I don’t have the sort of visceral hatred of Zayed that seems to be almost universal among the filmi bloggers I follow, so I started watching Love Breakups Zindagi without any expectations, negative or positive. In the end, I was happy to have watched it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film for me was that it seems to suffer from the curse of the first half. Many Bollywood films start off strong, then disintegrate into amorphous messes after the interval. With this film, I felt that it only found its structure and purpose in the second half. The first half of the film seemed to have consisted of approximately ten minutes of dialogue scattered between more songs than I could be bothered to count. 

The film starts brightly, introducing the two main couples quite cleverly, during an opening song. Once the little mini twist in the opening setup is revealed, it becomes instantly clear who ends up with whom, the only question is how they get there. I struggled with the first half because it seemed that it was usings songs as exposition, and none were particularly memorable, but the 2nd half developed very nicely, and transformed my overall opinion of the film. I was impressed with the way they resolved the love triangle by humanising the loser, not demonising him.He bowed out in a low-key version of the classic filmi sacrifice that was still in keeping with his character and thus believable.

Zayed and Diya have setup a production company together, and perhaps it’s that familiarity that allows them to come across as likeable and believable couple on screen.  I certainly don’t get the amount of antipathy directed toward them as people, especially Zayed. 

Even though Zayed and Mirza were the lead “couple” in the film, the real strength of the film, and the element that raised it above merely mainstream mediocrity was the Govind and Sheila storyline. It was very refreshing to see a cookie-cutter Bollywood film include a mature romantic relationship between a twice-divorced man and an older woman, and I was impressed by both Cyrus and Tisca in their performances. I am very much looking forward to watching Firaaq again to see more of Tisca. 

The movie also had lyrics by Javed Akhtar, as in this song, my wife's favourite from the film

and a delightful cameo by his wife – my shocked amusement  at seeing Shabana-ji in such an ephemeral  film was profound. In fact, the cameos were a real highlight of the film. Boman Irani was excellent as the gun-toting Dad, Shah Rukh was entertaining as himself and the unfailingly excellent Farida Jalal endeared herself to me even more by speaking Panjabi in a manner that was (in my experience)  inauthentically slow and well-enunciated, enabling me to follow every word of it!

Every filmi fan develops their own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, my own  rants against Black, Baghban, Devdas and KANK  are good examples of this. That's why an outside perspective can be useful at times. My  sapnon ki rani doesn't watch many Indian films with me, but when she does, she often says things that make me smile. Like me, she found Love Breakups Zindagi a pleasant enough timepass, but it was her reaction to seeing Zayed that was most refreshing. She said, "Wasn't he in Main Hoon Na?? I like him."  That made me smile, reflecting on how very seldom anyone ever says that about him.

In summary, I would say that Love Breakups Zindagi really is marvellously mediocre. None of the performances are terrible, and none are histrionic genius. It is a good-natured film, one that seems grounded both in its depiction of the world in which it set and in its own perception of itself. Unless predisposed by personal antipathy toward the leads, there is nothing here to generate active dislike, and the film's makers deserve credit for the Govind and Sheila storyline in particular.The film knew it was filmi but it still felt quietly real. In an industry that cranks out hundreds of films a year, some films will be outstandingly good and some will be staggeringly bad. Many will be  mediocre, some marvellously so, and describing Love Breakups Zindagi as one of them is not a criticism. It would be very easy to do a lot worse, as I found out with the next film I watched. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie 17/50 Agent Vinod

Agent Vinod        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

I was reminded of an important lesson by this film: In the end, the only person who knows what you'll enjoy is you.

There were many,  many negative reviews of this film, and most of them cited valid problems with it. The Vigil Idiot did his usual devastatingly funny shredding of its storyline, lakhs of people dissed both the "techno mujra" and Kareena's performance in it, and krores of people commented on Saif's shiny plastic mask of a face. They were all right, but I was wrong to let them put me off watching it. I'm going to respond to those three areas of complaint separately.

First, the storyline: Yes, it was inane, stretched credibility way past breaking point and had plenty of WTF moments. But so does every action movie, even the good ones. I watched Mission Impossible 4 the other night and loved it, despite being a religiously devoted Tom Cruise anti-fan. It was full of silly stunts and impossible developments, and  that's exactly what an action movie is supposed to be about. The moment I saw a Russian hitwoman kill someone in a snowstorm while wearing an insanely short skirt and high heels, I knew Agent Vinod was my kind of action film - a kid's comic book brought to life. What The Vigil Idiot did to Agent Vinod could be done to the Bourne movies and even to the revered and somewhat self-important Dark Knight series. This was a popcorn (or bhujia/katha meetha) entertainer, not above intellectual criticism, simply outside the parameters of such a critique.

Next, this:

Of course, I din't have to include  Dil Mera Muft Ka in order to discuss, but it is a highlight of the movie for me. The song itself has been savaged as a hideous and inept mishmash of musical styles, and Bebo's received the usual criticism of her less than naturally fluid dancing style. I am not a big fan of the song per se but I love it in the film, flaws and all. Why? Because Bebo looks good! It seems that Kareena has given up on acting in roles of substance like Chameli or Dolly in Omkara, and has decided to settle for being decorative. While that is disappointing, at least she's very good at it. This is a no-brainer film, and she delivers a  solid performance as the intriguing sidekick. In fact my only real gripe with the film was the unnecessary climax to her character's participation in the storyline. I had been hoping for a Mr & Mrs Smith  franchise, with Bollywood's own Brangelina.

Finallyy, the issue of Saif's age and appearance. Yes, his face is billiard ball smooth, and yes I wondered whether it  was truth serum or botox that Bebo's character was injecting him with in one scene, but I did not find it distracting in this film. In the trailers and promotional stills for Cocktail   he makes my skin crawl (something his can't do, of course) looking like an aged lecher flirting with pedophilia next to the two female leads, but because this one was not a romcom, it didn't bother me nearly as much. Returning to MI:4, Cruise is significantly older than Saif, so arguments that Saif is too old to play an action hero are much less plausible than arguments that he's too old to be romancing actresses in their 20s.

Recently some bloggers were participating in a "shameful pleasures" week, and maybe I should have included this in that category. Except that I'm not ashamed to have enjoyed it, only ashamed that I let the opinions of others put me off it for so long. Masterpiece cinema it ain't, and I may never watch it again, but it was a fun watch that delivered exactly what it promised, and that's all that can be asked of any film.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Movie 16/50 Habemus Papam

Habemus Papam    Nanni Moretti        fiftyfiftyme category: Other

Mi piace moltissimo la lingua Italiana - la più bellissima lingua del tutto mondo. It wasn't the first non-native language I learned, and  I haven't used it in nearly ten years, but it remains my first love. Craving the sound of Italian, I tried to watch Ladri Di Biciclette last week, but not even the allure of the language could get me through that relentlessly heartbreaking film. Feeling like I owed my beloved Italian an apology for such faithlessness, I turned to a movie about faithlessness, in a way.

I went into Habemus Papam looking for  comedy, and found it, but I got so much more than just that. The movie had plenty of genuinely amusing scenes, and several that induced outright laughter, but it was no easy comic romp. I normally ignore the "reviews" snippets used in posters and promotional work, but one for this movie was right on the money: "Tender, Funny and Timely". Habemus Papam really is all those things.

It's tender in its examination of a personal crisis. I was expecting it to be a satirical and amusingly cynical skewering of the politics and machinations that must be integral to the selection of a Pope. Instead, the film took a surprisingly gentle and understanding tone, highlighting the alienness of the world in which the Cardinals live. Elderly men, isolated from the world, and  from those they lead, this film did a great job of being sympathetic, and showing them as human, focusing on their likeable sides.

Nanni Moretti not only did a fine job directing the film, but his performance as  "the best" psychoanalyst who finds himself suddenly held hostage after taking on the ultimate prestige client, was pitch perfect. A non-believer who was neither cowed by the Church, nor aggressive toward its representatives, he delivered a very nuanced performance. Perhaps one of the highlights for me, apart from the wonderful volleyball match, was his use of the Bible to argue for the validity of his profession and purpose. It was respectful of his audience and their beliefs, while still being  an uncompromising defence of his own values.

When I read the synopsis for this film, I couldn't help thinking of Albino Luciano, who became John Paul I. In the photos of him, and in the glowing descriptions of him in David Yallop's In God's Name, I get a sense of the same sort of slightly lost, bewildered gentleness that Michel Piccoli does such a great job of displaying as Melville. To see him as an old man in street clothes, wandering through Rome looking for himself was a powerful reminder that, whatever one's views of the Church, in the end its rulers are neither angels nor demons, just men.

The real stunning highlight of the film for me was the end. I did not see that coming. Too many years of Hollywood's addiction to neat tidy climaxes perhaps, this film's ending was a stunner. It was also absolutely perfect. More than just the action of the climax, the reactions to it were authentic and moving, and again portrayed the Cardinals in a very sympathetic way. It was an apt summary of the film as whole that neither savagely derided the Church nor fawningly idolised it, but did resolutely focus on the good in its characters.

I can't think of a single thing I didn't enjoy about this film. I was even stunned and delighted to realise that I could follow it OK without subtitles, a huge shock after so long. It has filled me with anticipation for seeing more of Moretti's work, and made me realise that I have to somehow find the time to revive my Italian. If you haven't seen it yet, all I can say is, perché no?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book 12/50 The Fifth Elephant

The Fifth Elephant    Terry Pratchett      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

The fifth in the City Watch series, The Fifth Elephant was a welcome return to Pratchett at his best for me. Witty, amusing and wryly observant, it was a great fun read.

In keeping with the old adage about a diplomat being an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country, the story revolves around Commander Sam Vines of the City Watch being sent as ambassador to Uberwald to attend the coronation of the new dwarf  Low King. What follows is a story of political intrigue and family politics that I found very hard to put down.

Because his girlfriend, Sergeant Angua, is from Uberwald and has left to go back there suddenly, Captain Carrot resigns from the City Watch and follows her. This sets up an amusing subplot about what happens to the Watch with both Vimes and Carrot away.

As with all the best of his work, The Fifth Elephant takes shots at many different elements of society. Primarily politics and diplomacy, but also the nature of an aristocracy and the significance of tradition and ritual. It does all this while still being very funny, and weaving in a relatively complex detective story for Vimes to figure out. It was also the first Discworld novel of the twenty-four I've read that featured a truly evil character, the genuinely psychopathic Wolfgang, Angua's brother. Pratchett wrote this character very well, as truly a bad seed, and his unrelenting malice added tension to the storyline.

Ultimately, though, I read Pratchett for amusement, and  The Fifth Elephant  provided that aplenty. Thanks to the irrepressible Gaspode, I now have another phrase to remember for describing hopeless situations: all the survival chances of a chocolate kettle on a very hot stove.  After the stodgy dreariness of Carpe Jugulum, Pratchett certainly melted away my disappointment with The Fifth Elephant, earning my enthusiastic recommendation. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book 11/50 Carpe Jugulum

Carpe Jugulum   Terry Pratchett        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

I hate vampire fiction. The last vampire story I enjoyed was Lost Boys  in the late eighties, which enjoyment I'm sure had a lot more to do with Echo and the Bunnymen and Jamie Gertz than it did with vampires. The persistent obsession with necrophilia in books, TV series and movies over the last decade or more leaves me utterly cold. Because of my thorough contempt for the genre, when I learned that Carpe Jugulum,Terry Pratchett's twentythird Discworld novel and sixth in the witches series, was parodying vampire fiction, I was very much looking forward to reading it. Sadly, it disappointed me.

All the Discworld novels are intended to hold a mirror up to some elements of this world's society and poke fun at  them. The problem with Carpe Jugulum is that there wasn't that much fun. For this, I don't entirely blame the vampires. The bits where he pokes fun at all things vampiric are fun, by and large. The problem lies, not so much with the vampires (sorry, vampyres) but with the witches.  Pratchett's witches are some of his most complex and interesting characters, but that very complexity can mean that their storylines are short on humour. This is because Pratchett uses them to examine thought-provoking issues and abstract ideas, which are not always easy to make light fun of. This is especially true of Granny Weatherwax. She is by far the deepest of the witches, and her character is the one that examines the challenging questions. As a result, any time a witches story revolves mostly around her there's a noticeable reduction in easy humour. That was definitely true in this story, a great deal of which was Granny wrestling with issues that were not remotely amusing.

One of the major themes in this book is an examination of the role, purpose and validity of faith. It's something that Pratchett touches on a lot of his books, and is at the very core of Small Gods, which is still my favourite of the 23 books I've read so far. His handling of the subject in this book seemed confused and disordered. It may have been by design, as an attempt to highlight some of the confusions and contradictions that can exist in the life of a religious person, but to me it just read as awkward and vague. I wasn't sure whether the intent was to mock religion and faith, or to find a rationalisation for its existence, a way to excuse those people for whom faith is an important part of their life. That uncertainty and lack of clarity and direction made lots of this book quite dull to read. Small Gods challenged faith and mocked the structures of organised religion with single-minded purpose and great humour, and I found it hard to put down, laughing my way through the whole book in a very short time. In contrast, it took me nearly 2 weeks to finish Carpe Jugulum, because so many passages seemed stodgy and confused, and the book failed to grip me.

Even a substandard Pratchett book is still not a bad read. His gift for insight, and the ability to express that insight in amusingly concise ways still peeks through every now and again. I was happy that the last quarter of the book was largely a return to  form, and there were plenty of opportunities to laugh out loud during the climactic final pages. Even Granny Weatherwax, after providing much angst and metaphysical debate for most of the book, ended up generating a lot of laughs. The other highlight of the book for me was the introduction of the Nac Mac Feegle, which left me eagerly anticipating Wee Free Men, the book in which they are the central characters.

I'm pleased I read this book, and there are a few passages from it that resonated deeply with me. Overall though, it's not one of my favourites, and I hope that the next Discworld book I read returns to the seamless blend of observational parody and analysis that marks Pratchett at his best.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Movie 15/50 Satte Pe Satta

Satte Pe Satta      fiftyfiftyme category: Major
      I can't remember who recommended this film to me, or in what context. I know it that it was an Internet friend, and to whomever it was, thank you!
      A great fun comic adaptation of  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this film struck me with its innocence. There is a jaded, and guarded, self-awareness of most mainstream Hindi films these days that can be refreshingly honest, but at times it's just tiresome, labouring under the same misapprehension as the creative (and I use that word very loosely) team behind Family Guy, that endless unoriginal pastiches and parodies can be mistaken for genuine wit and humour. Few films today are made with the sort of naive (and I use that word in its most complimentary sense) simplicity that shone from Satte Pe Satta.
      As the picture above shows, Amitabh in a double role, as the hero Ravi and "Satan in human form" Babu, was the headliner for the film. For me, though, Hema was the star.  When Indu quit her job as a nurse to be wife to Ravi and de facto mother to his 6 brothers, I was a bit disappointed, but the trademark spunk and vivacity I associate with Hema still shone through. Her great chemistry with Amitabh and comic timing made her role a delight to watch, as she domesticated the family she'd inherited and trained them in the ways of the world, as in this song:

      The songs in this film wsere more proof of its innocent charm. The noxious Western stereotype of Bollywood as being all about song and dance would mock the way songs are jammed into this film, but they all felt right to me. No showy sets with whory goris or emaciated NRI models, the songs in this film belonged to the story. They were devoid of any of the snide "we're doing this ironically, of course" attitude that taints many modern songs, which often seem to be there simply because somebody said there must be songs. The other thing I enjoyed about the songs were the multiple singers used. Listening to Pyaar Hume Kis Mod Pe Le Aaya the different singers made it easier to believe that all 7 brothers were singing, and I love the song for its affectionate display of the bond between the brothers.
      It's easy to imagine that everyone who went to see this at their local cinema in 1982 did so knowing what they were going to get in terms of the plot development. While such predictability can be boring, being able to work out in advance what happens and how can free up the viewers to sit back and let themselves be entertained. For me and mere sapnon ki rani, Satte Pe Saat was just that, a relaxing, entertaining trip back to a simpler time in Hindi cinema. Did I mention that Hema totally rocks and that poor Gabbar Singh continues his unlucky relationship with other people's feet?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Movie 14/50 Paan Singh Tomar

Paan Singh Tomar      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

            Some movies are quite excellent, others are quietly excellent. Paan Singh Tomar is both. Everything about the movie is understated competence, making for a very satisfying viewing experience.
           A biopic with a storyline that I'm sure could only happen in India, this tale of a man's journey from soldier and star athlete to rebel/bandit is not typical Bollywood fare. Almost songless, its low-key storytelling, literally. The lead character recounts his tale to a very nervous reporter hoping for a career-making scoop. The absence of Bollywood style melodrama really drew me into this film. It was almost the anti- Mangal Pandey - a movie built around one character, but without hype or exaggeration. From the perspective of my limited knowledge it seemed authentically grounded in its setting, and I enjoyed the dialect used, it reminded me of the Dakhini of another favourite of mine,  Well Done Abba.
           The artist formerly known as Irrfan Khan definitely filled this film up. Thanks to all the training he did, he was believable as an athlete, but more importantly he did a very good job of portraying an intelligent man with a very simple world view. He made it very clear that he was an athlete first, and a bandit only because he felt that he had no choice, a fact about which he remained very angry right to the end. The film did not turn him into Robin Hood, but it made his choices understandable and he remained a sympathetic character. From beginning to end it his personal ethics remained the same, even his reluctance to resort to violence. When shown using violence, his pained reluctance and sense of aggrieved necessity was very clear.
           I also really enjoyed Mahie Gill as Paan's wife. I'd just seen her playing a very different role in Utt Pataang, and was impressed at how believable she was as both a shallow, slick urbanite and a devoted but still independent village woman. She really loved her husband, but it was a realistic affection, no pati parameshwar syndrome here that I could see. Her skilled performance in  Paan Singh Tomar highlights a problem with the current Bollywood obsession for fair-skinned gori PIOs - Angela Jackson, Evelyn Sharma et al could easily play the role that Mahie Gill played in Utt Pataang, but they would never be able to play the role she played in this film.
           The film's end credits, with a list of Indian athletes who were forgotten and died penniless, was a very effective way to drive home the message of Paan Singh's lifestory. If anything, in today's world where MS Dhoni can earn more than $20 million US annually, the point may be even more relevant - other sports and their participants have to fight for  scraps, and outstanding achievers in minority sports can still be unsung and underpaid heroes in their own land.
            I would recommend this film to anyone who thinks "Indian cinema=Bollywood". Distinctly and distinctively Indian, it's also very accessible to people not used to the style of cinema associated with Bollywood. A good story, well told and convincingly portrayed. I hope that, unlike its title character, this film gets the long-lasting recognition it deserves. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Movie 13/50 Utt Pataang

Utt Pataang              fiftyfiftyme category: Major

       I put this movie on my rental queue shortly after watching Chalo Dilli and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and being impressed by Vinay Pathak's performances. I was not  disappointed by Utt Pataang, because I had realistic expectations going into it.
       A crime farce with Vinay playing a double role, and told  in flashbacks from each main character’s perspective, it's mildly amusing and competently put together. As the dotty francophile villain Lucky Sardana, his appearance and performance reminded me of a less-threatening Crime Master Gogo, which sums up the spirit of the film. As the "hero", Ram, he's the aamest of aadmi, the sort of role he carries off well, I think. The two female leads both did OK, Mahie Gill had almost nothing to do, and her character's ultimate departure was a flat note in the film,  anticlimactic and unsatisfying, but at least it wasn't a wannabe skin flick like Hate Story.
       I really enjoyed Mona Singh's performance as Koyal, and would like to see more of her. I clearly need to rewatch 3 Idiots, because I don't remember her role in that at all. Here she played a low-key central role with a believable quietness, and I hope she gets meatier roles in bigger films in the future. It was a treat to see Murli Sharma turn up, plying his trade as Bollywood's go-to-guy for LEO roles in a slightly humorous setting, with a nice twist at the end.
      The star of the show, in terms of its comic impact, was unqestionably Shaurabh Shukla as Nandu, Ram’s private eye best friend. His was the liveliest character and the most grounded, possibly, and the scene where he pretends to be a pizza delivery “boy” was genuinely absurd in a deadpan way, the comic high point of the film for me.
      This was a pleasant diversion for a Sunday afternoon. At just over ninety minutes, it was not bloated, and it’s sparing use of songs helped. I was left with the impression that it was a film made by some top flight character actors, getting the chance to have some fun and play leads. For a moderately amusing “crime” comedy, you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Movie 12/50 Potiche

Potiche            fiftyfiftyme category: Other

When I started the fiftyfiftyme challenge I decided not to count any English-language movies I watched toward my total. This was mostly to inspire me to cut into my backlog of unwatched Indian movies, but gave me a pass for the relaxing fun of watching light French comedy. Potiche is a good example of the genre.

Over the last 5 or 6 years, I've come to think that the French have mastered the art of, and cornered the market for, light comedy. It's a ghastly, hideous cliché but there really is a certain je ne sais quoi about many French comedies that make them very entertaining and distinctively different from Anglo fare.

This film, the story of a trophy wife (the "Potiche" of the title) who discovers a talent for running a business when her husband is incapacitated, is a good example of the difference. The most striking difference is the age of the leads. This is a film about middle-aged people primarily, and that's not common in Anglo films. Catherine Deneuve was very good in the lead role, and I enjoyed both Fabrice Luchini (who I'd previously liked in Molière and La fille de Monaco) as her thoroughly caddish, chauvinist husband and Gerard Depardieu as her once-and-would-be-future paramour.  Neither Depardieu (now) nor Luchini would be considered for leading man roles in Anglo films, I'm sure. Especially would the idea of them being romantic leads be incomprehensible.

That is another part of the difference - the attitude toward sex. French matter-of-factness about sexual behaviour means that it can be used as a part of the comic element of a story without heavy-handed crudeness or juvenile snickering, which afflict many Anglo (and most Indian) films that try it. Here it's a big part of the plot, but handled with a competent lightness of touch that I doubt would be possible in the Puritanical US cinema tradition (which revels in violence but recoils from sex), and is definitely not possible in mainstream Indian cinema, which becomes puerile whenever it tries ( cf Desi Boyz).

Films like Potiche  are bit like a pavlova. A basic meringue-style dessert may seem easy to make, but everything has to be just right for it to be a melt-in-the-mouth confection. Afterward, there will be no life-changing impact, just the memory of a pleasant sweet interlude. All the ingredients in Potiche come together to deliver just that, a sweet little diversion, one that features real people, even old ones!

Movie 11/50 Desi Boyz

Desi Boyz   fiftyfiftyme category: Major

From "to thine own self be true", to "trust your instincts", English has generated plenty of aphorisms designed to warn us that we know ourselves best and should heed our own advice in many matters. Watching Desi Boyz was a salutary lesson for me in the painful consequences of ignoring all those clichéd axioms. Everything about it said that I would not enjoy it, the always funny Vigil Idiot savaged it with particular ruthlessness, yet still I went ahead and watched it. Why? I'm still asking myself the same question.

The main reason I overrode the legion of voices in my head screaming at me to avoid it (they all laughed wickedly when proved right) was Chitrangada Singh. She is a very attractive woman, but I first saw her in Sorry Bhai, liked her performance in it, and was intrigued by her story as an actress returning to the spotlight after marriage and a child, which was still newsworthy when she did it, before Lolo's return. I hoped that her parts of the film at least might be worth watching. I was so very, very wrong. There is a place for films that are just big dumb fun , but this film only scored one out of three, and to paraphrase Meat Loaf, that IS bad.

If I was pressed to sum up this film in one word, it would be tawdry. I think of it as a movie that aims for sleazy but doesn't quite make it, tries for vulgar but falls flat at crass. Perhaps most important of all, it was painfully unfunny. Vigil Idiot skewers every film they review, but I enjoy seeing films I liked getting the treatment, because I can acknowledge the points made while knowing there were redeeming features (at least for me) that let me enjoy the film. This is particularly relevant when it comes to plotholes. I can like a film with more than a few of them, if there are things about the film that compensate for them.  Sadly, there were no such compensations in this painfully awful, insultingly stupid, film.

Actually, that's not entirely true. There were two bright spots  in this ugly morass for me. One was the soundtrack. I discovered that I quite liked the songs, finding them pleasant to listen to and moderately catchy. They were quite easy to enjoy, as long as I only listened to them and did not watch their picturisations, which were as bad as the rest of the film. The other highlight came at the very end, the outtakes played during the credits. I actually laughed, something I hadn't done for the entire two hours of the movie. It looks like the cast may have had real fun making the film, which at least slightly made up for my having none at all watching it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie 10/50 Kahaani

Kahaani  fiftyfiftyme category: Major

A week may be a long time in politics, but a hundred days is an even longer time in the world of Hindi cinema. That's about how long  after its release I finally got see Kahaani. The downside of that delay was missing out on all the discussion about the film while it was current, having to strictly avoid all reviews for fear of spoilers. The upside was the objectivity that was possible in watching it well after the hype and buzz had worn off.
    Kahaani was a  good film, one I enjoyed greatly, and could easily watch again. Was it the quantum leap forward in filmi thrillers that it was widely described as? I don't know, but if it was, that says more about the dire state of other filmi thrillers than it does about this one.
    Right from the start, it had a familiar, comfortable feeling. I knew there was a surprise of some sort coming, and the biggest part of that surprise took perhaps a femtosecond to work out. I don't really blame Kahaani for this, I blame my own familiarity with similar ruses in other, Western films. Therein lies the film's weakness and its strength for me.
    The weakness lay in just how obvious the most visible part of the surprise was. I did not work out the entire story before the climax, but I recognised the elements of Western thrillers that had been blended into this film, and that enabled me to know one important thing about the lead character for certain. Familiarity did not breed contempt, but it did kill the chance of "wow, I didn't see that coming!"
    That same Western style of storytelling, though was also part of the film's great strength. Many, many Indian films rip off Western films, and do so with excruciating ineptness. Some pad out a Western film's story with too many songs and self-indulgent lack of editing, creating unpalatable slop that does neither cinema justice. A precious few merge a Western genre with an Indian milieu and sensibility and get it just right. For me, Kahaani is right near the top of the list of that elite group. Director Sujoy Ghosh said that he wanted Kolkata to be a star of the film, and he succeeded magnificently, I thought. The authenic feel of the film, the sense of being there and the feeling that the city herself was a major character was a big part of what kept me interested, even when the story was unremarkable. Atmospheric is perhaps a clichéd term, but it fits so much of this film, especially the climactic final scenes, making good use of the crowds and colours of Kolkata's Durga Puja to make that iconic Bengali tradition an integral player in the story. Making the film a tribute to his hometown definitely added a personal warmth to the viewing experience.
    If Kolkata was a star of the film, Vidya was the star, without a doubt. The promotional posters made it clear that this was her film, and she owned it. Her performance was so good that I was invested in seeing how the story developed for more opportunities to watch an expert ply her trade, rather than focusing on her non-secret. She is the complete package for sure, brains and beauty. That clear intelligence and captivating beauty power  a melting smile that is  irresistible. There were plenty of scenes where her beauty and guile made the story's developments plausible.
    The one at whom Bidya's magnetic charm and intelligence was mostly directed also deserves special mention. Parambrata Chattopadhyay played his "double agent" role really well. The relationship between his character and Vidya's was deftly handled, a nice blend of restraint and implication, with volumes left not only unspoken but only very subtly hinted at. A tribute to the actors and the director, I thought.
    The other standout role and performance for me was Saswata Chatterjee as Bob Biswas. Some might argue that it's not much of a stretch to see an insurance salesman as a detached psychopathic killer, that there's a Bob Biswas in almost all of them, but I think it's a scary tribute to his performance that I was reminded of Anders Breivik.
    The weak link in the key cast was Khan, the IB agent. I say Khan, because I see the flaw as being the character, not the actor. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has received praise for his performance, but I found the character he played extremely problematic. Up until almost the end, he's a bombastic bully, with all the finesse and subtletly of an avalanche, and I can't see how such a character could rise so high in the world of intelligence and covert operations. There's nothing remotely covert about commandeering a police station by means of a profanity-laden outburst at its commanding officer.
    That was the only real flaw in the film, from my point of view. Some have said that the thriller element was weak and too easily ascertained. but I thought it was competent and serviceable. Perhaps that's just because the one major assumption I'd made about the film turned out to be wrong, too obvious after all. The strong characterisation and excellent performances made the film interesting and involving even if the structure seemed a little  familiar. And the film could definitely be used as a model to explain the unfamiliar concept of editing to may filmi directors. A very good film, perhaps not a great one, but one that makes me want to see more of everyone involved in it. One of the main cast has already appeared in a film directed by my filmi favourite, Nandita Das. Now more than ever  I want to see her direct a Vidya Balan starrer. That way, my cause of death could officially be listed as, filmi bliss overload. What a kahaani that would be!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Movie 09/50 Howrah Bridge

Howrah Bridge     fiftyfiftyme category: Major

After a break from movie-watching to focus on reading a bit more, I got back into my fiftyfiftyme film challenge with this 1958 film starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. I really wanted to like it, as it had been described as a fun mystery film. I did not dislike it, but I was left underwhelmed. Here are the things that did not work for me.

The characters: Specifically Uncle Joe and Mr Chang. Uncle Joe looked like he was supposed to Chaplinesque and his role as one of the bad guys was also apparently intended to be partly comic. Instead, it was irritating and clumsy. Mr Chang was a cartoon villain, not just in the  sense that his character was a shallow stereotype of a villain but also in the more literal sense that he looked cartoonish, with eyebrows that appear to have have been drawn on to heighten his villainous appearance. Neither was helpful in hooking me into the story, a real problem given how much they dominate the first forty minutes or so. Which leads me to the other problems

The pacing and the plot development: For the first, too slow; for the second, too jerky. A mystery/thriller needs to make the viewer care about the mystery straight away, to raise intriguing questions and ensure that the viewer wants to find out the answers. Howrah Bridge did not do that for me. It was sluggish and slow to get its story rolling and I had to make myself watch the first half hour or so. There was at least one mystery about the plot development, though. In one scene, Edna is telling the man she knows as Rakesh that she doesn't speak Hind properly, and demonstrates this by mangling it even worse than I do. Having seen Edna in the conference where the drug trafficking was being discussed, I figured she was dissembling for some reason. If so, I never saw the scene where the reason was given.All I know is that for the rest of the film, she's talking completely normal Hindi. Did I perhaps doze off and miss the explanation, or was this truly an unexplained mystery of the plot, like the fact that the woman who sat calmly and matter-of-factly listening to her uncle talk about buying her a Christmas present with drug money was later a crusader for justice? Flaws like that distracted from the story, making it difficult for me to engage with and feel like I really cared how it ended.

Helen: Try as I might, I cannot see the allegedly irresistible allure of this most famous of filmi vamps. In this film, I actually quite liked both mera naam chin chin chu and Helen's performance in it.Of course Geeta Dutt's voice was as lovely as always, and the song was a cheery little number, but that was all. I thought it an OK song, and Helen's performance satisfactory, and for me, that's high praise for a Helen piece. My reaction to Helen is as incomprehensible to most filmi buffs as my similarly meh reaction to Sholay but in this film, it nicely sums up my problem with the film as a whole - it was just OK. Now for the things that emphatically did work for me in this film:

Madhubala: Unlike my reaction to Helen, I've always admired Madhubala as an actor, and enjoyed her films. I've also long been very fond of the song aaiye meherbaan, one of my favourite Asha songs, and one that nicely shows up the difference between her and her didi, the difference that makes me prefer Asha. I had not, however, seen the song. When I did, my reaction was a string of exclamations of the "haai allah!", "arre vah!" variety. Y'all can keep your Helen, here is some va-va-voom! Scales fell from my eyes and I saw why many have waxed lyrical about Madhubala's great beauty. In this song, she positively drips seductive allure, a perfect match for the earthy, sultry tones of Asha's voice. Those descriptions are not my coinage, I've seen them used as pejoratives(!) when comparing Asha's voice to Lata's. After watching aaiye meherbaan I have no idea how anyone could consider those terms to be pejorative. This song, with its absolutely perfect pairing of a sultry voice and a come hither Madhubala (pun intended) is what scraped Howrah Bridge a passing grade for me. Here it is just because I want to, I mean, for art's sake:

Throughout the film from this song onward, Madhubala's beauty helped carry me through. She seldom looked better than she did in this film, and it's almost a pity that she was on the side of the angels, because she would have been a very credible femme fatale. The other thing that worked for me about this film is something else that marks my filmi tastes as idiosyncratic:

Shamshad Begum: When I tell people that my 2nd-favourite filmi playback singer from the golden era was Shamshad, another tick goes on the "bilkul paagal" checklist, alongside "doesn't find Helen hot" and "was kinda bored by Sholay". I can't explain why, but from my first introduction to her, in teri mehfil mein kismat (which she "won", of course), she's been a singer I really enjoy listening to. I was genuinely excited to see her name come up while watching the opening credits for this film, and I enjoyed her duets with Rafi very much. Hearing her distinctive voice opening main jaan gayee brought a smile to my face, which didn't happen often enough in this film.

In summary, this film was OK. For the crores of more normal filmi fans who get Helen, mera naam chin chin chu is obviously a classic. For me, this best thing about this film was the revelatory experience of seeing Madhubala smoking up the screen in tandem with saddi rani's voice. I will definitely be obeying her invitation again, that's for sure. For now, I leave the Calcutta of Howrah Bridge behind. Next up, the Kolkata of Kahaani.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Book 10/50 The Last Continent

The Last Continent   Terry Pratchett                fiftyfiftyme category: Major

Looking for discussions on Pratchett's best novels, I was surprised at how often the Rincewind series was dismissed as inferior. Because I'm reading all his books in the order of publication, Rincewind was my introduction to Pratchett and still holds a special place in my heart. in The Last Continent, he's back in all his inglorious patheticness, and the results are as funny as ever.

In every Discworld story, the main "target" is pretty obvious, subtlety is not an important part of Pratchett's writing. Nevertheless, in  The Last Continent, the target is so obvious that Pratchett takes the unusual step of writing a disclaimer to state that , and I quote, "this is not a book about Australia". Obviously, he's lying. Everything about EcksEcksEcksEcks is Australia, even the name, and the book is one long joke at that prisoner island's expense. Naturally, that alone should be reason  enough to make the book a favourite of any true Kiwi, but unlike the petty, mean-spirited envy behind most NZ digs at Oz, this book is a celebration. Clearly Pratchett is very fond of Australia and that shows through in all the playful swipes he takes throughout the book. Of course one of the things that helps make Australia what it is is having a whiny, insecure little sibling hanging around craving attention, and Pratchett remembers that. In fact, he doesn't even bother disguising it with a pseudonym as he did with the land of Four Ecks: Since the word is derived from an island that did not exist on the Discworld, the wizards had never heard of a bikini. In any case, what Mrs Whitlow had sewn together out of her dress was a lot more substantial than a bikini. It was more a newzealand - two quite large respectable halves separated by a narrow channel.

Besides being the only mention of Australia's noxiously insecure little neighbour, that passage also highlights the other taget of this book - the Wizards. Occasionally, the depths of my own obtuseness still manage to astound even me, and this was one of those occasions. Perhaps it's because I never attended University that it was only in this, the sixth book in the Rincewind  series, that I finally realised that the Wizards are Dons, and that the Unseen University is, of course, University in the meta, as it were. Happily, that spectacular ignorance on my part did not prevent me from being hugely entertained as always by the incredibly frustrating antics of the Wizards. 

In The Last Continent  the Wizards are on a quest to help one of my favourite of all Discworld characters, The Librarian. Their quest ends up intersecting with Rincewind's and along the way, there is barely even one Aussie icon left unscathed. It is to my deep and abiding shame that I must confess to having got only almost all of them when they first appeared. One reference I missed until it was mentioned again near the end. That was truly shameful because the Aussie icon in question is one that most Kiwis have adopted with eagerness and are happy to acknowledge as possibly Australia's only, and certainly its most important, contribution to the advancement of world civilisation - VEGEMITE. 

This is not Pratchett mocking the big ideas, like belief, or patriotism, or intolerance. This is Pratchett having fun poking fun at a place he obviously has real affection for, and because of that, it's a great fun read for everyone else, too. If you want to laugh aloud, a lot, as you learn the real story behind "Waltzing Matilda", "Mad Max" and the creation of the duck-billed platypus, you simply must read this book. It’s a fair dinkum corker of a book, cobber, and you’re sure to enjoy it. No worries, mate!

Book 09/50 Jingo

Jingo   Terry Pratchett          fiftyfiftyme category: Major

George Bernard Shaw once said, "patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy", and Einstein asserted that "nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of humanity". Those two quotes are very dear to me, especially the Shaw, since they express a little something of my depth of feeling about the concept of the nation-state and the absurdity of giving any fealty to it. As pithy and expressive as those quotes are though, they are definitely  not reomtely funny, and that's where Jingo comes in. It pours scorn on nationalism and patriotism and  does so while raising many laughs.

The fifth in the City Watch series, Jingo uses the sudden appearance of an island in between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch as the framework to poke much fun at the ignorance and xenophobia associated with blind patriotism. Much of the book examines the plight of Klatchian immigrants in Ankh-Morpork, "towelheads" who come from a place that's nothing but sand, "invented a number for nothing" and whose cuisine includes vindaloo and korma. This was a clever hybridisation of two immigrant communities prominent, and prominently despised, in Pratchett's England, and offered plenty of opportunities to mock the sheer stupidity of xenophobia. 

Of course, what makes the best Discworld books so good is the way they show up Earthly absurdities in order to laugh at them, and Jingo has many laughs. It's by no means an earnest treatise along the lines of "why can't we all just get along?" It is a very funny skewering of the ridiculous human tendency to separate into "us" and "them", on the flimsiest of imagined reasons, and then to be prepared to fight and kill (or, preferably, have others fight and die) over them. The fifteen years since its publication have seen world events and global immigration trends make its message even more topical and universal than when  it was released.

The other thing that makes Jingo so much fun is, again, The Patrician, Havelock Vetinari. The ultimate politician, whose machinations make Machiavelli seem mildly mediocre, Vetinari is always good for a laugh. The City Watch stories can be heavy-handed in their message of equality and tolerance, but Jingo avoids that trap by hovering firmly on the edge of the absurd. By doing so, it shows just how absurd the whole idea of "them" vs "us" is, and how laughably petty the debates really are.

For its handling of a subject very important to me, Jingo  ranks with  Small Gods as one of my favourite Discworld novels. That it is also very, very funny, made the experience of reading it that much more memorable. If you enjoy laughing at human absurdities, you should enjoy this book very much. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book 08/50 Hogfather

Hogfather   Terry Pratchett           fiftyfiftyme category: Major

What a difference a day makes. Having finished Terry Pratchett's nineteenth book,  Feet of Clay on one day and and feeling underwhelmed, I turned to his twentieth the next day and was left grinning from ear to ear. Hogfather is everything a Discworld novel should be.

After the political preaching of Feet of Clay, in Hogfather Pratchett returned to his most productive territory - the role of belief in human society. This is the same topic he explored so brilliantly in my favourite of his so far,  Small Gods. That book is the best of his I've read, but it's not the funniest. In all the books which have DEATH as a central character, Pratchett is at his humorous best, and Hogfather had me laughing out loud a lot.

There is a difference between the DEATH books and the Watch books, and I think the big difference is attitude.  In the Watch series, Pratchett's target is politics, and the strength of his own political views often invest his writing with palpable anger. This was particularly noticeable in Feet of Clay, and it's clearly not easy to be flippant when angry. The DEATH books, on the other hand, have belief as their target, and they are written in a spirit of amused affection. There is so much absurdity in belief systems that they are a rich source of comic material, and Pratchett exploits that material well, with the affectionate attitude of someone who includes himself and his own belief system in the fun, rather than someone trying to preach through comedy,  as in his more political works.

Everything about Hogfather shows Pratchett at his best. All the main characters are well drawn, including the psychopathic Mr Teatime and the bureaucratic bad guys, The Auditors. The star of this book, though, is the wonderful Susan Sto-Helit, DEATH's granddaughter. I saw the TV adaptation of this book long before reading it, so I visualised the wonderful performance of Michelle Dockery as I read the book. Susan's struggle to come to terms with her family background is a big part of the stories she's in, and provides plenty of opportunities for amusing swipes at other famous characters, as in "She'd become a governess. It was one of the few jobs a known lady could do. And she'd taken to it well. She'd sworn that if she did indeed ever find herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she'd beat herself to death with her own umbrella."

Mary Poppins is not the only source of laughs in Hogfather, though. Around the central framework of an affectionate parody of Christmas, Pratchett managed to make me laugh out loud with digs at Hans Christian Andersen's predisposition for needlessly cruel, sad endings (the little match girl) to restaurant French - Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures, anyone?

Everybody believes something, which is what makes Pratchett's best work so universal. Anyone who can laugh at themselves should enjoy Hogfather, a good-natured celebration of the wondrous silliness that is the human imagination and the importance of its capacity for belief. This is a Discworld novel I can enthusiastically recommend to anyone who hasn't read one before, with one important warning: Reading it late at night may disturb the sleep of others in nearby rooms, try to keep your laughter down! 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book 07/50 Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay Terry Pratchett        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

One of the reasons I decided to do the challenge was to prod me to get back into my reading of Terry Pratchett's books. I  read the first eighteen in three months  before series saturation set in, and the challenge has provided the incentive to read the other twenty or so, after a gap of a year. First on the list, book number 19, Feet of Clay

Like a Wodehouse story, a Discworld novel is a known quantity. Pratchett uses his stories to lampoon society on this planet. Sometimes, the mix of commentary and humour is almost perfect, and a gem like Small Gods is the result. At other times, the commentary comes over a little heavy-handed or lumpen, and we get Feet of Clay.

The fourth in the City Watch series, Feet of Clay continues that subseries investigation of politics and society, particularly addressing issues on inclusiveness. The message that everybody is equal is never obscured or buried beneath layers of subtlety in the Watch series, but it comes across in a particularly stodgy fashion in this book. Perhaps that's because the central characters are golems, and like them, the mix of humour and social commentary in this work comes off a little misshapen and half-baked.

The problem seemed to be an excess of earnestness. There is always one key target in a Discworld novel - in my favourite by far (til date) Small Gods, it's religion and religiosity, including the religion of atheism. That book is very, very funny, its mockery works because it's both insightful and delivered with a light touch. In Feet of Clay the target is monarchism, whether absolute or constitutional. Unfortunately, it seems that Pratchett's own views are so strong on this subject that the book becomes a republican rant, rather than a mockery of monarchs and royalists.

That's not to say it was a total failure. Pratchett's strength in humour is not unlike Wodehouse's,  throwaway descriptive asides that at the least raise a smirk, and at their best are genuinely laugh out loud funny. There were several of the quiet smirk moments in this book, not sure if there were any of the laugh out loud ones. 

The best thing about this book is the Patrician, Havelock Vetinari. He is the highlight of every Watch story, never used as a mouthpiece for any of Pratchett's preaching, always allowed to be true to his character. His role in this story was central, both to the plot and to redeeming the book's readability. Also, the next book in the Watch series, Jingo is often mentioned as one of Pratchett's best, so another good, strong  story involving Vetinari is something to look forward to. 

The overall standard of Pratchett's work is remarkably high, and I have yet to read a bad one. While I would not recommend  Feet of Clay as a starter for anyone looking to get into Pratchett (Small Gods, hands down), it was not without moments of his trademark wit and humour and I'm pleased that I read it so that I can get back on track, and look forward to book twenty, Hogfather. I love DEATH, even in this book, he got one of the best lines. Feet of Clay proved that everyone has them, even Pratchett, but don't let that stop you from visiting Discworld. Have I mentioned how good Small Gods is?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book 06/50 Piccadilly Jim

Piccadilly Jim    P.G. Wodehouse         fiftyfiftyme category: Other

"If Wodehouse hadn't existed, it would have been necessary to have invented him." 

Voltaire may not have said that, but I'm sure he would have done, given the chance. After wading through a fatiguingly mediocre Sapne Sajan Ke, I was desperately in need of refreshment, and the chance to return to Wodehouse was a blessing.

Wodehouse's writing is like a soufflé, light, insubstantial and airy, and guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone who enjoys a sweet treat. Despite having read many of his books, including almost all the Blandings books, and most of the Wooster/Pelicans stories, I'd forgotten that I even had Piccadilly Jim until reminded of it by Dustedoff's excellent review review of the 1936 movie adaptation. Having "discovered" it, it's now one of my favourites, almost the quintessential Wodehouse.

One of the reasons that Wodehouse does generally not translate well to the screen is that his trademark style is not in the narrative, but in the descriptive parts of his works. An oft-quoted example of this is "if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." Or, one of my favourites from this book, "it was his tendency, when he found himself in a sea of troubles, to float plaintively, not to take arms against it. To pick up the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and fling them back was not a habit of his." Phrases like that can't be brought to life onscreen, but they are what makes Wodehouse Wodehouse. So too are ridiculously complex and contrived plots, the sheer silliness of which make not smiling at them an impossibility. Even by Wodehouse's high standards, though, the farcical intricacy of the plot in Piccadilly Jim takes some beating.

Reading a Wodehouse story is liking pulling on a comfortable pair of slippers, you know exactly what you're getting into. True love will conquer all, but only after twists and turns that would make the Minotaur's head spin, and only after defeating women who make the Minotaur seem like a pussycat. In Piccadilly Jim the twists and turns include the delightful bonus of the lead character and hero of the story having to impersonate himself, a twist I don't recall from other PGW stories, and one that made me laugh out loud when I saw it coming.

In a world full of political darkness, economic uncertainties, and various grim horrors, it's therapeutic to turn the clock back a hundred years and just laugh. Wodehouse at his best is a master laugh maker, and  Piccadilly Jim is Wodehouse at his best. If you haven't read it, do, and if you have, return to it when you need to rediscover your smile. I guarantee that reading Piccadilly Jim will leave you thoroughly gruntled. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Movie 08/50 Sapne Sajan Ke

Sapne Sajan Ke        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

No-one ever said that anything worthwhile would always be easy, and that's definitely true of the fiftyfiftyme challenge. Watching this movie was an exercise in sheer bloodyminded determination, to move that counter one closer to the target of fifty. A story that's been done a gazillion times, padded out with completely forgettable songs to make it twice as long as it needed to be. The less I say about this movie, the sooner I can forget it, and move on to something enjoyable, like reading some Pratchett or Wodehouse to advance my book tally in the challenge. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie 07/50 Andaz Apna Apna

Andaz Apna Apna      fiftyfiftyme category: Major

This film scrapes under the fiftyfiftyme challenge "no rewatch" rule by virtue of the fact that I never actually finished watching it the first time. I disliked it so intensely, I gave up  barely halfway through. Having now seen it all, the question that remains is: What on Earth was wrong with me then?!

Andaz Apna Apna is normally translated "To each his own style", or similarly. That's a nice summary of the film's strengths and weaknesses. All interaction with art is subjective, but perhaps comedy most especially so, and film comedy from a culture not one's own even more so. That's the weakness, the possibility that what seems hilarious to many will leave others unmoved. The humour of Andaz Apna Apna is so non-stop that if it's not  your style of humour, the movie will seem very long and excruciatingly unfunny. Now on to the film's real strength, which centres on one word - meta.

Ben Zimmer wrote an excellent piece on the  evolution of meta recently, and the word in its current sense is very relevant to this film. It's a Hindi film that's all about Hindi film, but it has something that most Hollywood attempts at self-referential humour lack - innocence. There is no shortage of Hollywood product that relies on making references to other Hollywood product, but almost all of it is done with a very self-aware sort of arrogance - "look at us, we're making a clever reference here, aren't we clever?" This is done to be "ironic", because Hollywood is far too grown-up to break the fourth wall just for pure, innocent fun. The only exceptions I can think of to this both involve desis, interestingly enough - Danny Pudi's outstanding Abed on Community, and Psych , one of whose producers and writers is a desi American. It's tempting to think that this may not be coincidental, but perhaps indicative of a cultural difference.

The best Indian films really do have a unique innocence to their meta moments, devoid of the clumsily unsubtle "nudge nudge, wink, wink" mentality of shows like Family Guy.  The filmi references in Andaz Apna Apna are perfect illustrations of this. They are genuinely funny because the laughter is unforced. There's no script equivalent of a neon sign saying "laugh now", just a relaxed confidence that the audience will find them funny because the writers did - a shared laugh among friends who get the joke. And in this film, there's two and half hours of that shared laughing. Every filmi trope is thrown into the pot, including the clownish "supervillain" as in the above screenshot, but they are laughed with not at. 

This unaffected innocence makes Andaz Apna Apna  a relaxing, fun movie to watch. Its simplicity and lack of pretense is sadly rare even in Hindi films today, more and more of which seem to feel obliged to ape Hollywood in everything, including attitudes toward self-referentiality. This film may represent the acme of filmi meta-humour partly as an accident of timing, coming as it did toward the end of that age of innocence.

The fact that I enjoyed this film so very much got me wondering why I hated it the first time I tried to watch it, and the answers I came up with are the reasons why I can't give it an unqualified recommendation.

When I wrote about my favourite Hind film ever, Pyaasa, I said that to do the film any sort of justice required learning at least some Hindi/Urdu. I think that is even more true of Andaz Apna Apna, for a slightly different reason. In Pyaasa, the poetry of the songs will go un(der)appreciated without at least some grasp of the language. In Andaz Apna Apna the sheer speed of the dialogue can make listening to it without any comprehension tiresome - nearly one hundred and fifty minutes of people jabbering away flat out, just an irritating noise. That's one of my lingering memories of my first abortive attempt to watch it. It's a shame, because the quality of the subtitles is pretty good by Bollywood standards, and the basic humour of the story is of broad appeal. Perhaps I would still have laughed at it the first time if I'd just turned down the volume a bit more.

The other thing that makes me think this would not be a great film for a novitiate Hindi film watcher is its meta-ness. In-jokes are only funny if you're in on the joke, and there are so many in this film that if none are known, much of the humour is lost. For example, one of my favourite laughs in the movie is this one:

The subtitles do a perfect job of translating the song lyrics, but the scene is not funny at all if the reference to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak is missed. I got it, and laughed a lot. I did that often enough through the film to know that there must be many more jokes that I missed. But that's OK, because I got enough of them to find the movie very funny and because I can look forward to finding ever more scenes to laugh at as my knowledge of Hindi cinema grows. It might be possible for someone to find this film mildly amusing without knowing anything of the language or the filmi references, (like Karisma playing someone who may or may not be Karisma), but its status as a truly iconic barrel of Hindi belly laughs will almost certainly remain puzzling.

To each his own may be a cliché, but Andaz Apna Apna  is one of the funniest collections of clichés you'll ever see. If you haven't seen it, do, and if you don't find it funny the first time, watch a few hundred more Hindi films and then try again. It worked for me!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Movie 06/50 Dhanwaan

Dhanwaan        fiftyfiftyme category: Major

As part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, I decided to catch up with some Karisma Kapoor films. I started with this one, and ended up being pleasantly surprised. It's formulaic and predictable overall, but had a few  noteworthy redeeming features. First, it's comedy elements were actually funny for the most part.Second its starts all look very good - Urmila quite distressingly so. Third, and most important, its ending was intelligent and sensible. I don't want to give it away in case there are any Urmila, Ajay or Lolo fans reading this who haven't seen it, but  I thought I knew how this was going to end, and it let me think that right up until almost the very end, then pulled out a filmi happy ending that was still satisfying and consistent. If watching these three stars shine in youthful beauty sounds appealing, you could do much worse than Dhanwaan. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book 05/50 Through the Language Glass

Through the Language Glass  Guy Deutscher   fiftyfiftyme category: Minor

I simply cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language is one of my favourite books, and Through the Language Glass  is an excellent companion to that earlier work. I'm so very pleased that I overcame my initial hesitation and bought it.

The hesitation was caused by the subtitle. That phrase "why the world looks different in other languages" instantly made me think of Sapir-Whorf, and I was loathe to read anything that promoted such a theory. I need not have worried. Rather than defend the indefensible, Deutscher instead looks for a middle path between two extremes in the argument about whether nature or culture governs our perception of the world in which we live.

The book focuses primarily on colour - specifically how different colours are labelled in different languages and whether those labels actually impact on the way colour is perceived by the speakers of those languages. Other examples considered involve gender (whether "masculine and "feminine" gender labels affect the way the items thus categorised are perceived) and direction (egocentric versus geographic). It's a fun journey that starts with Homer and travels throughout history and around the world, from Russia to Mexico, from Native Americans to the small Aboriginal tribe that gave the world "kangaroo".

One note of caution: I prefer reading on my Kindle these days, but this book must be read in a traditional book format. The Kindle version apparently doesn't have many of the illustrations and graphical elements that are fundamental to the arguments made, so stick to the dead-tree versions!

The contention that language does govern perception, even partially, is very contentious, and rightly so. Deutscher treads carefully and reasonably, and lays out his arguments with meticulous care. He is challenging an orthodoxy, but does so in a specific and limited way, and makes a compelling case.

Deutscher's gift is being able to write about a field often thought of as dry and uninteresting and bring it to life. He writes with verve and real humour, and a complete lack of academic preciousness. I was surprised at how many times I laughed out loud at phrases in the book, and his humility was endearing. There was no insistence that he had all the answers, or even any of them, just a thought-provoking series of arguments that suggested there are  many questions that need to be addressed. That he ends the book with a chapter entitled "Forgive Us Our Ignorances" is an excellent example of how honest and unassuming the book is.

I enjoy reading about linguistics as a hobby, and Deutscher's books are written for people like me. It's clear that he loves language, and celebrates it in his research and writing. If you want to learn more about the incredibly complex relationship between our words and our worlds, or want to wonder what we mean when we ask, "why is the sky blue?", this book is a must read.