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June 26, 2005

Deshploitation - The Films

Outside India, the primary sources for desi themed diaspora films are North America (US and Canada) and the UK. The latter deserves a separate entry and I'll focus more on that later. For the time being, let's look at what I call deshploitation films. Why the name? Recall the definition of blaxploitation:

Blaxploitation is a portmanteau of the words "black" and "exploitation", and refers to exploitation films that targeted the urban African-American audience during the 1970s. The films featured primarily black actors, and were the first to have soundtracks of funk and soul music. Although protested by civil-rights groups for their use of stereotypes, they addressed the great and newfound demand for afrocentric entertainment, and were immensely popular among black audiences.

So, we have the confluence of "desh" and "ploitation." Get it? However, there is a big difference between films such as Lonely In America and The Guru that have been directed by white folks and those that have been put out by the US diaspora. Exploring the latter, what are the themes of interest in these films? Here's a "theme matrix" that attempts to summarize. Enjoy:

Film Title Description Identity Crisis Nasty FOB Alert! Obligatory Bollywood Parody Sequence Wisecracking Sidekicks Cardboard NRI Parents
American Desi (2001)

College freshman Krishna Reddy, who has never cared for his Indian-American cultural heritage, looks forward to a new life on campus but is surprised to find that he has been assigned Indian roommates.

Yes.

Yes. Fake Indian accent ahoy!

Some. Dishum dishum at the end as well.

Yes: "..somewhere in Jersey there is a black man driving around in a Honda Accord and praying to Lord Ganesh."

Yes
ABCD (1999)

The only goal of an ageing Asian-American widow is to see her son and rebellious daughter married off to respectable Indian families

Yes Not really No No No
American Chai (2001)

Sureel is a first generation Indian American college graduating senior music major who's controlling father still believes that he is pre-med.

Yes. Also, choices choices: should I be Ravi Shankar or Prince?

Yes Yes.

Yes. "Don't worry, chicken curry... "

Chapati flat

Where's the Party, Yaar? (2003)

While the desi scene may be hip and happening in Hari's new home of Houston, Texas, the guardians of cool don't want the FOBs, with their funny dance moves and their white sneakers, crashing their Desi Fever dance parties.

Yes

Yes. With exaggerated bad Indian accents to match. Sorry mates, ABCDs just can't seem to do desi accents and vice versa.

Yes

Yes: "Did you know I'm good at math? Let's add you and me, subtract your clothes, divide your legs and multiply..."

Yes

Green Card Fever (2003)

This is the story of a young man in the United States who overstays his visa in the pursuit of a "Green Card". He naively muddles through an underworld of illegal immigrants, immigration lawyers and the INS, and the love of an American girl of Indian origin.

Yes

"Nasty" only in the womanizing sense.

No Yes Sadly so

The biggest theme these films share is that of identity crisis. This isn't surprising given that they are mostly made by second generation Indian Americans. Of these, ABCD is the most hearfelt exploration of this issue. Otherwise, the rest of the films show this is really not a strong enough subject to carry an entire picture. Green Card Fever recognizes this and adds a lot of immigration stuff as well, but while it has strong moments, the final product comes out somewhat muddled. And what about the FOB bashing indulged by so many of these films? Why would you purposely want to alienate a large chunk of your potential audience? Box office wise, American Desi opened strongly but the rest suffered increasingly diminishing returns in the US market, suggesting the novelty value was wearing thin.

I don't include films such as Mississippi Masala, Masala, Praying With Anger, Chutney Popcorn, or Flavors. The first two films, while containing many deshploitation elements, rise above them. They are also of an earlier era, having been made in the early 1990s. I haven't seen Praying With Anger - apparently, it's not available on DVD and I haven't seen Chutney Popcorn. Flavors is more from the point of view of Indian immigrants and chooses to entirely sidestep all of this angst. More on that in the future.

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- June 26, 2005 7:53 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review , Select

June 24, 2005

Theme to Swades

swades.jpg Make no mistake, AR Rahman was on a serious roll last year. The soundtracks to Yuva, Meenaxi and Swades are astonishing achievements, even by his lofty standards. It is a tribute to his (and his production company's) talents that he could actually leave out perfectly wonderful pieces of music out of the actual albums. In particular, I am referring to the Swades opening theme. This haunting tune plays during the opening credits and at places throughout the film. I also remember it accompanying the TV promos in India. One of the main thrusts of the film itself is how India still exerts its pull on the folks departed from its shores. The main riff is a perfect encapsulation of that sentiment, yet is not on the CD! Thus, I've taken the liberty of making it available. Without further ado, here's the Theme to Swades. Notice the transition to the Yeh Tara Woh Tara opening in the bridge section. Also, is it me or does the airline captain speaking over the intercom sound suspiciously like Shahrukh Khan's voice filtered?

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- June 24, 2005 12:34 AM // Bollywood , Music

June 19, 2005

American - The Brand

As befits a superpower, especially one so obsessed with marketing, the USA has invested much in the word American. Putting that adjective in front of another word somehow makes the combination bigger than the sum of the parts. For example, there is "dream" and then there is the American Dream (and you have to say it in a basso profundo voice for maximum effect). Somehow, no one talks about the Mali Dream or the Belgian Dream! Moreover, if you're not content with just American, there's All-American of the blue eyed square jawed variety. And this has long been a favored tactic for harried screenwriters looking to juice up their title. So, searching on IMDB for titles with the word American in them yields something like 1170 titles, amongst them such notables as American Kickboxer, All American Chump, American Dog, American Cowboy (is there any other kind?) and American Pimp. Of course desi filmmakers are getting in the act as well. Hence, we have American Desi, American Chai, and last but not least, Indian Fish in American Waters. How's that for fusion? I tried similar searches for British, French, Chinese and Indian. None came close but at least for Indian, I found such gems as Bollywood - the Indian Dream, Running on Indian Time, I...Proud To Be An Indian and Indian Uprising. So, perhaps brand Indian is not so far behind after all! I'll have to get cracking on the "All American Curry" script though before that title gets taken!

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- June 19, 2005 10:29 PM // Film , Select

June 17, 2005

$145 Million Film Deal In India?

Mid-Day is reporting that a Mumbai based production house, Percept Picture Company, is all set to announce Tree of Life, a $145 Million dollar project:

The film is a drama and will star Hollywood bigwigs Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell, and will be directed by Oscar-winner Terence Malik (Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands).

Additionally,

Fifteen per cent of Tree of Life will be shot in India, while the rest will be shot on locations abroad. A source from Percept, who does not wish to be named, says, This film will take India places in the Hollywood circles.

Not confirming the news, Shailendra Singh, managing director, Percept Picture Company says, I cannot comment on this right now. When I have something to say, we will announce it officially.

If true, it's safe to say it'll be unlike any other Indian production. Frankly, I find it a little hard to believe myself. Firstly, the most expensive Indian films have had budgets in the tens of millions. This is an order of magnitude higher. Also, the most recent films produced by Percept (Makdee, Phir Milenge) have been relatively low cost affairs, even by Indian standards. Secondly, the star power - again next level stuff. Thirdly, the director, Terrence Malick, is one of the most reclusive and slow working auteurs out there. All I can say is, grab your popcorn as sparks are sure to fly!

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- June 17, 2005 12:06 AM // Bollywood , Film , India

June 16, 2005

Foot In Mouth

Once again, a Western company thinks it's a really cool idea to put Hindu gods and goddess images on completely inappropriate objects. From Outlook:

The god Ram painted over French firm Minnelli's 'designer' shoes is not, of course, the first time Hindu images have been set up as exotic eastern design. But unlike other instances, it's led to protest which in the past few days has begun to pick up steam like no other.

In the past too, Hindu groups scattered across the West have been periodically taking the fight to what they see as abuse of cultural images. People have eased themselves over the figure of Saraswati painted on toilet seats, others have blown their noses into Krishna-marked pocket tissues. Women have been sold panties with Hanuman poised to leap on them, and some of the barest Italian bikinis now offer a range of Hindu gods.

Apparently, Minnelli were reluctant to withdraw:

The new campaign is kicking in stronger partly because Minnelli insists it will continue to sell the shoes. They are backing on the French freedom precept — pick the design they like, sell it as they choose.
Yeah, freedom to make a buck indeed! Ultimately however, the protests did have an effect. From the Hindu Council UK web site:
Hindus congregated with 'One Voice' at Knightsbridge (London) on 12th June, outside the French Embassy, at a Rally organised by Hindu Human Rights (HHR) to protest the manufacture and sales of shoes with the image of Lord Rama printed on them. A French manufacturer Minnelli produced the shoes.
...
At least thousand Hindus, congregated on the streets included representatives from all sections of Hindu society and were of all ages. The energy and enthusiasm of the young speakers, was equally rivalled by the older generation who spoke or sang with the same pride and devotion for their philosophy.
...
Minnelli Ltd have withdrawn the sale of these shoes but have not yet issued a written apology to Hindus.
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- June 16, 2005 11:42 PM // Diaspora

June 12, 2005

Retrospective: Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Pt II

wbhh-tourists.jpg In a curious sequence of affairs, an ad copy writer, Punit (Arshad Warsi), finds himself on wrong end of an sixteen hour bender, initiated by his brother's death and his subsequent eviction from his girlfriend's house. He wakes up in the midst of a gangland shootout and unwittingly saves the life of one of the biggest hitmen in Mumbai. In the days that will follow, he, again without any clue whatsoever, will be responsible for the demise of two of the Mumbai underworld's biggest gangs.

Writer/director Shashanka Ghosh makes no bones about hiding his influences. The film opens with the statement "the plot has been plagiarized from several films" and concludes with the statement: "This film is a reaction to Bollywood." Then follows the name of a list of directors including R. G. Verma, M. Manjrekar, R. Sippy, and B. Kitano, Q. Tarantino, and J. and E. Coen. The inclusion of R. Sippy is signifcant - as director of Sholay, Sippy was responsible for the first "curry western." Presumably, Ghosh is aiming for quirky curry pulp fiction in the line of films such as Snip, Mumbai Matinee and so on.

The film opens with the inevitable music video shoot, a staple of Bollywood directors trying to shoehorn a song sequence into the film flow. If your impression of India just came from watching films made in Mumbai, you'd think half the folks there are nothing but film directors, ad copy-writers and singers struggling for a living and the other half were somehow connected with the underworld. Not promising. But, the lyrics of the song being sung (something to do with smelly lovers reeking of onions) and the fact that they are being lip synched by some very fat crew members immediately tells you this film is trying to make a statement. Cut to a Baristas coffee house, where a disaffected trio of two desis (who talk in Hindi) and an Aussie gentleman (who speaks in English but has no trouble understanding the other two) provide running commentary on the headlines of the day. Cut to a bunch of rowdy Sikh mundas crowded into a Tata Sumo, careening towards Mumbai and looking for some fun. And this is just Aisa Bhi Hota Hai Part I! We then get titles for Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II. Will the rest of the film be as madcap as the first five minutes?

The short answer is no. But it does entertain greatly in many places. Arshad Warsi plays straight man with aplomb to a procession of ruthless gangsters and even more fearless, psychotic women. There is much grandstanding and cursing a la Tarantino, severing of body part (a la Tarantino and Kitano) and, of course, quirkiness (a la the Coen brothers). Using the Barista trio as Greek chorus is a great idea as well. However, I just couldn't help the feeling that I'd seen all of it before. Given that Ghosh himself claims the film is inspired from various sources, perhaps that's not surprising. But whereas Tarantino is past master at filching from many places and producing something original out of the mix, that spark of demented genius is missing here. Two songs are standouts: Allah Ke Bande and Gurdeepa (which really should be called Punjabi Rap although it features no rapping, not in the strict sense of the term, anyway).

Okay, rant alert: do all of Mumbai parallel cinema have to feature the shenanigans of ad agency employees? Just off the top of my head I can think of Jhankaar Beats, Mumbai Matinee, Phir Milenge, and I am not even thinking of mainstream Bollywood!

However, the film did turn heads, deservedly so, and I'll be following what Shashanka Ghosh does next with great interest.

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- June 12, 2005 8:54 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

June 10, 2005

Cal Shakes' Othello

Jealous husband kills wife. Or, newly married husband starts suspecting his wife. Tragedy ensues. The plot of Othello can be summed up briefly. But, as with all classics, that's not necessarily the most interesting part. The fascination comes in seeing how exactly do we get from the beginning to the end i.e. how does a man flush with power and love lose it all so quickly? Enter Iago (and a certain handkerchief)! Cal Shake's Othello starts fast and furious and takes no prisoners in its nearly two and a half hours running time. Director Sean Daniels has set the play in a non specific early 20th century future reminiscent of Ian Mckellen's Richard III. There are guns but it is daggers that do the killing. The cast is uniformly excellent with Bruce Mckinzie as Iago providing a particularly indefatigable performance. However, Billy Eugene Jones as the titular Othello more than holds his own and Catherine Castellano provides a particularly memorable turn as Emilia. Mention must also be made of the sound design which subtly augments the onstage emotions except when it breaks into full blown songs. The stage itself is stark, relying on a split level structure and two gantries that also double as light towers. Because of the open amphitheater setting, there are no stage curtains. Extras swap furniture in and out rapidly in keeping with the frenetic pace of the play. Afterwards, I heard other audience members commenting on the lucidity of the language - I too was very impressed at how the cast were able to bring the words to life with such vividness. Shakespeare understood that violence and sex (especially the forbidden kind) sells and statements such as

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram Is topping your white ewe

and

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.
leave little to the imagination and here they were delivered with the gusto they deserved. A particular audience favorite had Emilia sighing:
'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, They belch us.

Hey, this play is staged with the Berkeley Hills as the backdrop! What else would you expect? Somehow, as the play went on from light into dark, the cold air brought out the chills as Othello danced with Desdemona dead against his shoulder. A gorgeous setting for such a wonderful production. It was a night to remember.

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- June 10, 2005 12:50 AM // Review , Theater

June 5, 2005

Sen-se and Sen-sibility

ssen1.jpgIt seems Bollywood is under inva-sen by the Sens. Look around and you'll sen-se them everywhere! As far as I know, most of the recent inva-sen is courtesy of the Suchitra Sen parivar. Suchitra was one of the leading Bengali actresses of the '60s and '70s with her daughter Moonmoon Sen keeping the family tradi-sen going in the '80s and '90s. Moonmoon's daughters are Raima and Ria Sen. There's also Rimi Sen who's no rela-sen. Neither is Konkona Sen, daughter of Aparna Sen, or Sushmita Sen, the real "Get Out Of My Dreams And Into My Car" woman (quoting Billy O-Sen). Oh and let's not forget director Somnath Sen. In-sen in the membrane indeed!

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- June 5, 2005 12:14 AM // Bollywood

June 2, 2005

Ismail Merchant: An Appreciation

There have been many tributes following Ismail Merchant's untimely passing. Some are here and here. From a personal standpoint, while I enjoyed a fair number of Merchant-Ivory films, they weren't necessarily must see events. However, I did appreciate the craft and thought that went into every frame. Most of all, I admired Ismail Merchant for being such an independent maverick, for exploring his Indian sensibilities, and for being able to mount such lavish affairs on peanut budgets. Apparently, he could "get money off a dead porcupine." His early productions (Shakespeare-wallah, Bombay Talkie, The Householder) had Indian themes, yet were free of the Bollywood song-and-dance constraints even when commenting on them (such as in Bombay Talkie). Lacking in the dishum dishum arena, they weren't blockbusters in India and only found a niche audience abroad. Unperturbed, Merchant/Ivory pressed on, achieving their greatest successes much later with several adaptations of Victorian novels. This is what Merchant, in an interview with Salon, had to say of their tough times:

Merchant Ivory went through many years of relative obscurity. Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever think, "We should stop doing this?"

No, not at all. We have gotten some terrible reviews at times but if we depended on the judgment of the studios or critics, we never would have made more than one movie. Let me tell you a small story. I remember when we were trying to make "Heat and Dust." I went to one of the studios and happened to see a report that called it "Eat My Dust." Just imagine! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Merchant's own directorial efforts showed, however, he hadn't lost his fascination with India. The best of those was his first, In Custody, a paean to Urdu as a dying language. The struggles of Nur (played by an alarmingly corpulent Shashi Kapoor), an Urdu poet trying to keep his art alive amidst an increasingly modern and uncaring society might have been a commentary of Merchant's own attempts to find an audience for his efforts.

I had the fortune of hearing him speak at Stanford last year. His account of his early struggles in New York in the late '50s/early '60s and his first meeting with Paul Newman (who finally worked with him a couple of decades later in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) was the stuff of legend and, I daresay, would make a great film in its own right. I met him after his talk and, despite the fact I'd jumped the line, he was gracious enough to answer the only question I could think of at the time. "How is Shashi Kapoor doing?", I blurted. "Oh, he's much thinner now!" he replied with a twinkle. That was Ismail Merchant - a true original, a true gentleman and a true inspiration to desi filmmakers everywhere.

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- June 2, 2005 10:00 PM // Film

June 1, 2005

The INOX Factor

On our last trip to India, we checked out several of the new state of the art multiplexes (by INOX) in Kolkata. We were blown away, particularly by the City Center INOX in Salt Lake. The seats, the screen, the air conditioning and the sounds were all top notch, easily comparable to the better theaters in the Bay Area (AMC Van Ness comes to mind). As a matter of fact, I wish our local Bollywood multiplex, Naz8, would hurry up and actually go through with their long awaited remodeling. Their current digs are really rather threadbare - AC ducts are visible through holes in the ceiling, the carpets cling to the shoes, and the seats just don't provide the posterior support necessary for staying awake and alert for three hours. INOX, in our mind, had another big plus - in India movie theater seating is not first come first served. Tickets come with seat numbers printed on them and ushers guide you to your spot in the theater. This to me is much more preferable, particularly in INOX where you can see the theater seating plan on screen in the box office and pick out what you like.

musafir.jpgAnyway, the very first film we went to see at an INOX theater after getting into Kolkata was Musafir. Supposedly a loose copy of U-Turn, the film was an excellent advertisement of Bollywood's technical proficiency. It really put the theater through its paces - techno music pulsed in the background while explosions and gunshots rattled the main speakers. On screen, we had fast-forwards, splitscreen shots, rewinds, jumpcuts, hooded bad guys striding in slo-mo through dark, rain drenched streets and forty-something heroes accessorized in the latest Italian leather and the latest young-enough-to-be-their-daughter starlets. The combined assault was as good a cure for jetlag as any and let us know emphatically that the days of getting bitten by mosquitoes while sitting on hard wooden seats was over. Alas, the hi-fidelity nature of our experience also revealed some inherent visual flaws in the source material - as one of the starlets (Sameera Reddy) leaned over suggestively, it was possible to see the stretch marks on her back. Similarly, in a slow motion shot of Anil Kapoor whirling around after getting punched, we could discern the laws of inertia - his fat was moving in one direction while he rolled in another.

When emerging from the theater, I finally understood Bollywood's cunning plan for holding on to its audience. First part of the plan consisted of filling the pictures with as much ear and eye candy as possible. The second part was to actually find some worthwhile content - but only if the first part didn't work. After all, who wants to pay writers? Judging by the pictures we saw, they have the first part down pat. And is it working? Well, purely from anecdotal evidence, we found it was much tougher to get tickets to the Bollywood films as opposed to the English flicks on offer. Speaking to the box office clerks confirmed this observation. In addition, the Hollywood films were priced cheaper than most of the Bollywood films. Tickets to Veer Zaara, the then blockbuster, cost close to 200 rupees! I guess most Bollywood films will remain content-free for a while longer then.

So, the theaters were excellent. How about the patrons? In his Reelthoughts for May 2005, internet movie critic James Berardinelli writes about the pain of going to a multiplex in the USA:

The Living Room Factor

There are plenty of things to complain about regarding movie theaters: poor audio & video quality, out-of-frame pictures, sticky floors, indifferent employees, uncomfortable seats, an endless stream of ads before the start of the feature, and so on... But the biggest complaint concerns other patrons, especially those who aren't yet old enough to drink alcohol. They walk in late, don't turn their cell phones off, munch loudly on popcorn and slurp their sodas, and chatter incessantly. (My apologies to those of you in this age group who are not guilty - and I know you're out there. Tarring you with the same brush is unfair. Unfortunately, you are the exception.)

Yesterday, I got a first-hand look at another example of movie-theater rudeness. It happened while I was watching an afternoon showing of Unleashed. Shortly before the commercials were about to start, a couple walked in and seated themselves across the aisle from me. They were both around 18 or 19. The guy settled into his seat and dug into his popcorn. The girl removed her shoes and propped up her bare feet on the back of the seat in front of her. I momentarily gawked, scarcely believing what I was seeing. Appropriate behavior for a living room? Yes. Appropriate behavior for a movie theater? Not in my opinion.

One thing became glaringly apparent when we were in the INOX theaters: the prevalence of cell phones in modern Indian life and their potential for irritation. During the course of a film, it wasn't uncommon for folks, particularly the teens and twenty-somethings, to hold up their camera phones to record what's occuring onscreen. Additionally, many simply never turned their cellphones off. I could hear people holding conversations during the movie. If the film in question was of the masala variety, there's enough continual background noise to drown out the neighbors' yakking on the phone, but if it's a more thought provoking effort, then it was a tougher ask. Still, a small price to pay for such gorgeous visual and aural splendor. At least that's what I'll tell myself the next time someone tucks into their bag of chips in the next aisle. Or starts a conversation with their long lost aunty.

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- June 1, 2005 12:10 AM // Bollywood , Film , India , Select , Travel