Review LOL

Sex and The City 2 has been garnering almost universally derisive reviews. Now, I am no fan of the original franchise and I thank the stars Shari isn't either. However, it has been interesting to see the novel approaches critics are taking to savage the film. I found James Berardinelli's takedown particularly insightful, especially the following lines:

It's astounding how a movie this long could accomplish so little. Sex and the City 2 could qualify as fashion porn - there are endless images of dresses, shoes, jewelry, and so forth - and plenty of shopping spree money shots. There are times when director Michael Patrick King's cameras linger on the wardrobe and accessories rather than on the actors, establishing clearly (as if there was ever a doubt) where his preferences lie.

He could have been talking about pretty much any big budget Bollywood masala flick, at least up to mid 2000s.

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- May 27, 2010 9:24 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Three Films: Fanaa, Guru and Nishabd

Whereas New Zealanders might be the world's most enthusiastic cinema-goers, writes the Economist, it is the Indians who made the most visits to the movies in 2005 - 1.6 billion. At 1.5 per person, that makes for a skimpy per-capita average, but hey, it must be the quantity that counts, not the quality, right? Maybe. As for the films themselves, I finally got a chance to catch up with three of Bollywood's more recent releases. Here goes.

Fanaa is pure old school masala served up a in spanking new thali. This is a typical Yash Raj production where characters spend hours exchanging Urdu couplets and extolling the glory of Pyaar (Love) with a capital P. In Yashland, parents are always madly in love with each other, every smile is intended on moving factory loads of Pepsodent, security guards are called Jolly Good Singh and house roofs are color coordinated to match the dupattas worn by their inhabitants. Plotwise, all you need to know is that Aamir Khan plays a Kashmiri terrorist who, while masquerading as a Delhi guide, falls for the innocent blind Kajol. Three hours of moping, sermonizing and mewling later, Kajol must make a terrible decision. I am not saying the film is without its bright points, chiefly the stunning cinematography and exceptionally high production values, but diabetics be warned for your condition is likely to worsen with the sugar shock.

I won't deny it - I had high hopes for Nishabd, a Ram Gopal Verma quickie where he tries to continue the rehabilitation of Amitabh Bachchan the actor. Sadly, Ramu's take on a robbing the cradle type tale whereby sixty year old photographer falls for eighteen year old girl is no Lolita, Venus or American Beauty. Though the acting overall is top notch, what could have been a provocative work is scuttled by the stylistic choices. Too often the camera swoops and soars and the music crescendoes to climaxes that aren't actually there in the scene itself. Both the music score and camerawork belong in a horror movie, not a mood piece like this. It's overkill for so slight a plot, reminiscent of playing ping pong with a cast iron saucepan. Though the creative team deserves hosannaas for sticking to their guns and producing a flab free film with a desolate ending that doesn't feel like a copout, I am still hoping Ram Gopal Verma can return to form with his next one.

The last effort of Mani Ratnam I saw, Yuva, fell below his usual standards. An attempt to follow the lives of three separate couples in Kolkata, Yuva was too bogged down by the weight of its ambition. Abhishek was a standout there though and, wisely, Mani Ratnam makes him the titular character in his latest, Guru. Abhishek does not disappoint - his performance is the best thing about Guru, one of the biggest hits in India this year. In my mind, it marks his coming of age as an actor. Guru relates the saga of Gurukant Desai from his days as a village school dropout to a textile tycoon. A thinly veiled re-telling of the story of Dhirubhai Ambani and his Reliance conglomerate, it's easy to understand why the struggles of Guru to grow his business despite crushing government bureaucracy really resonated with the Indian audience. Mithun Chakraborthy has a nice turn as a newspaper owner who gives Guru his first big break but turns against him. Their fallout and subsequent bizarre relationship forms the emotional core of Guru. Certain scenes involving peripheral characters seem out of place, but overall it's worth watching if only to see the son step out of his father's shadow for good.

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- June 17, 2007 8:53 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Main, Mere Patni Aur Woh

The growth of multiplexes across India has had, in addition to making cinema-going a more comfortable and upscale experience, one other unexpected benefit: the rise of the so-called "multiplex films." The idea is simple enough: with punters visiting cinema halls more often, why not offer smaller films in the same multiplex? Slickly shot and edited, these efforts often are leaner and riskier in scope than their masala laden gasbag wannabe-blockbuster counterparts, yet would not exist without their tentpole effect. Khosla Ka Ghosla (Khosla's Nest) is an excellent example of this phenomenon as is Main, Mere Patni Aur Woh (Me, My Wife and Him). The latter deals with the life of one vertically challenged librarian (played by Raghubir Yadav) in Lucknow who, when finally persuaded to get married, finds his to-be wife (Rituparna Sengupta) to be jaw dropping beautiful. Being from the "I wouldn't belong to any club that would have me as a member" school, he naturally finds his own self worth taking a beating as his new wife starts attracting attention from his best friend. And then, an old friend of his wife unexpectedly arrives. Hilarity ensues? Tragedy? Dark comedy? Jealous short husband finds crazy way of disposing off wife's former fling! Husband must fend off attentions of unwanted suitors! Unfortunately, much of what happens next is of the tempest-in-a-teapot variety. Damn shame as the whole thing had potential. The buildup and the portrayal of the mind of the to-be married man was really well done.

On the other hand, I did enjoy the production values and, in particular, the non-assuming setting of the film. No frolicking in the Alps here, all the action takes place in middle India, in relatively small cities like Lucknow. From a graphic design standpoint, I have to commend the DVD layout as well. We are all well familiar with the FBI warning when we pop in a disc into our player, but have we seen it quite in this design?

Threats of imprisonment and/or fines have rarely been cuter. That exercise book margin motif is extended to the main DVD menus as well:

And finally, the sheer number of subtitle languages on offer in the DVD blew me away. Take a look:

Fifteen languages! Just for the hell of it, I had the Bengali subtitles on throughout and it was accurate. Anyone out there ready to test Portuguese or Malay?

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- April 22, 2007 11:52 AM // Bollywood , Review

Super Vision

Image courtesy SF Chronicle

Too much technology, not enough story. That about sums up my feelings about "Super Vision," the latest production from acclaimed New York theater outfit Builders Association that played last weekend at the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts. But, the show is well worth a visit simply for the sets and visuals which constitute a seamless blend of computer graphics, virtual backdrops and actors, live video teleconferencing and compositing and a pulsating soundtrack.

The Total Information Awareness Program is an infamous initiative of the Bush/Cheney government which purports to gather and correlate every single possible electronic and surveillance data point on every citizen. "Super Vision" envisions a world where this program is reality, not merely an eye in the sky scheme of the current administration. Moreover, the organization that undertakes this huge data mining task in "Super Vision" is a private concern, again a nod to our current world where corporations routinely collect and share huge amounts of information on citizens.

"Super Vision" starts off with a bang. In an opening monologue, a company spokesperson walks onstage to provide a little spiel. She calls out some members in the audience for that night by name, then lists their residential zipcodes and the preferred activities of the "average" resident in that area. It is a chilling reminder of the datasphere that encircles, observes, and records our minutest actions. The subsequent action jumps back and forth between three storylines: a couple in Seattle, an Ugandan Muslim of Indian origin attempting to pass through various passport checkpoints in the US, and a NYC based Sri Lankan woman teleconferencing with her grandmother in Columbo.

Unfortunately, none of the tales are particularly engaging. The sound, hypnotic at first, interferes noticeably with the words from the Seattle couple, making it difficult to follow their actions. Consequently, their climactic moment falls flat. The interrogation techniques used at the passport checkpoints hit really close to home but becomes repetitive after a while. The back and forth between the woman in NYC and her grandmother works best, yet, does not have a resolution either. None of the tales overlap or appear connected, making it difficult to understand the overall themes being presented, apart from the obvious Orwellian implications.

However, none of this should take away from the sensory experience offered up by "Super Vision." The set within a set concept, the use of rear and front projection screens, often simultaneously, the richness of the images floating across, the effective use of virtual actors - all of this add up to an engrossing evening. This is a group to watch. Hopefully, they'll have a killer storyline to go with the visuals next time.

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- August 21, 2006 6:34 PM // Review , Theater

3rd I Shorts At SFIAFF 2006

Not all films are created full length. Short films are what aspiring directors and producers create while waiting for the inspiration (and funding) for the big one. Though sites like youtube and ifilm have become popular outlets for mini-movies, a big screen at a festival is still a great way to soak in the latest and greatest. In particular, the 3rd I shorts program at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival offers an excellent opportunity for catching up with the emerging South Asian directors. Here are some brief thoughts on the pieces featured in this year's festival.

Girni
India 2005 | 22 mins
Director: Umesh Kulkarni

Shot and set in India, this is the story of a boy and his mother trying to make ends meet by purchasing a grain grinder on loan. The sounds of the girni, however, eventually starts to drive the boy insane.

Probably the best of the batch. I particularly admired its use of sound. A scratchy print but well worth catching nonetheless.

In Whose Name?
USA 2004 | 11 mins
Director: Nandini Sikand

A well meaning work that tried to sound warnings against religion corrupting politics in India. It started off strongly but ended up being too earnest in tone (and too jumpy in narrative) to make a serious case.

Lucky
UK 2005 | 20 mins
Director: Avie Luthra

A Zulu boy is sent to live with his uncle in Durban, South Africa. His mother has just died of AIDS and his uncle barely tolerates the kid, warning him to "avoid the colored woman down the hallway. She hates Zulus. She'll eat you. With Curry."

That the colored woman and the kid will form a link is a given. But the story arc is handled with grace. It did feel like an excerpt from a more full length work though. Still, nicely done.

Viva Liberty!
UK 2005 | 20 mins
Director: Dishad Husain

Poor Woody Ali finds himself in the USA's notorious Camp Liberty detention center. All he did was pick up a kid's water pistol by mistake on the plane ride over to the USA. Some start to his dream vacation!

This had a great premise and started off really well. But it failed to sustain the momentum and what could have been a great update of the antics of General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove petered out like a plateload of cold puris.

Time And The Hour Run
USA 2005 | 15 mins
Director: Samir Patel

From director Samir Patel comes this entry about an old motel owner in the middle of nowhere. A recent widower, he continues to be haunted by visions of his late wife and of celestial beings from the Hindu pantheon.

More a mood piece than anything else, I found it to be wonderfully moving meditation on death, loneliness and grief. I particularly enjoyed the way the widower's visions were handled. Grafting Indian iconography into wide open western plains is not an obvious thing to do but here it felt totally natural.

6 ft. in 7 min.
USA 2005 | 15 mins
Director: Rafael Del Toro

Hands down the most disturbing of the lot, 6 ft in 7 min. is a black comedy about an 18 year old kid who suddenly discovers he is the owner of a mechanical heart which, his parents casually inform him, will stop working in roughly seven minutes.

While the premise is wonderfully acid and was mostly well executed, overall it felt like an empty exercise in bravura filmmaking. Given the writer/director isn't of South Asian origin, his decision to set the story in a desi household simply seemed to be an excuse to spout a whole lot of guff about karma. This stood out in dire contrast with Time and the Hour Run which actually exhibited more of an understanding of death from a Hindu perspective.

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- March 22, 2006 8:02 PM // Film , Review

Punching At The Sun

USA 2006 | 82 mins | Super 16 | English
d. Tanuj Chopra

Indian Niggas ... Pakistani Niggas ... Bangladeshi Niggas ... haven't y'all heard? We're the new niggas! So starts Punching at the Sun, a film by Tanuj Chopra, that explores the lives of urban desi teens in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. In the sweltering heat of a NYC summer special, Queens homeboy Mameet (Misu Khan) is struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother, local basketball legend Sanjay ("his jumpshot was icewater"). Sanjay was shot in the cornershop owned by their parents. Reasons for his death are never made explicit - it's not clear whether it was a hate crime, although that would be the natural guess, or something else entirely. Furthering Mameet's problems, his sister Dia is starting to run wild, his basketball coach refuses to let him start on court during actual games and his brother's legend follows him wherever he goes. His main source of relief is his girlfriend Shawni (Nora Edmonds) - if only he would let her in through his rage and frustration. His homies Parnav and Ritesh alternately calm him and drive him to distraction through their bickering. And finally, the ongoing rap fest at the local club, particularly the MCing of Uncle Sonny, punctuates the film with staccato musings on desis and politics in the Bush era.

Shot in Super 16 with a cast primarily consisting of amateurs, Punching At The Sun's scope far outweigh its budget, which, by the director's own admission, is "lower than you think" and which, as he joked in the QA, he financed by "selling samosas in the street." That it falls short is more a testament to the muddled narrative than heart or passion, which Punching has in spades. Nonetheless, there's much to savor here. The rapport between Mameet and his sidekicks is effortless. Their variation on the "ya mama" jokes ("Ya mama uses ketchup for her bindi", "ya mama wears a snakeskin sari and fedora" and "ya mama gives elephant rides around the Taj Mahal", amongst others) had the festival crowd in stitches. Their escapades could well have been expanded into a standalone comedy in its own right. Nora Edmonds is a natural presence and the film truly shines when she's onscreen. Finally, Uncle Sonny is electric on the mic - his enunciations are on point. I want to see the man in concert!

Choosing to set this film in a culture of NYC basketball and hip-hop was a brave decision. While it's wonderful to see a South Asian film avoiding the usual identity crisis cliches, I can't see such thematic material being palatable to first generation desis. But by inviting comparisons against urban classics like Do The Right Thing, He Got Game and Boys N The Hood, the film once again suffers as there isn't enough here to differentiate it from others in that genre. Excerpting a Bollywood film and mentioning Amitabh Bachchan don't quite count. Nonetheless, director Tanuj Chopra has clearly marked himself out as someone to watch and his next project, set in the Bay Area during the dot com boon and featuring an army of "super-desis", sounds intriguing.

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- March 21, 2006 6:40 PM // Diaspora , Film , Review

Review: Brick

Brick.jpg What do you get when you cross Heathers with Chinatown? Brick, that's what! The central conceit of Brick, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is that it transplants film noir conventions into a high school setting. The most obvious result of this collision is the lingo. The characters here speak in an argot so thick, the screening pass comes with a little guide. In addition to the more obvious "shamus," we have "reef worm" (referring to a stoner), "take a powder" (to slip away eg. "Why'd you take a powder the other night?"), "scape" (a patsy to take the blame, abbreviation of "scapegoat"), "bulls" (cops), and "gum" (to mess things up eg. "Bulls would only gum it."). Yet, don't worry if you have trouble following the lines. You'll be so busy appreciating the fine acting and cinematography, you'll forget the linguistic incongruities and after a while, the setting of the film, a coastal Southern California town, will seem like vintage Raymond Chandler territory.

Our Phillip Marlowe here is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock From The Sun), a self imposed high school loner who is intent on locating his recently disappeared ex (Emilie de Ravin, Lost). Then she turns up dead and Brendan has to find out why. His quest leads him through teenage intrigues, schoolyard brawls and, ultimately, local drug kingpin Pin (Lukas Haas). Part of the delight of the journey we take with Brendan is our realizing how artfully writer/director Rian Johnson has drawn from hard boiled archtypes in creating his characters. These inclde femme fatale Kara, the diva in the high school drama, the gangster moll Laura and, of course, the authority figure (the assistant VP of the high school, played by Mr. Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree). Yet, all of them are totally in place within the high school ecosystem of cliques, low IQ sports jocks, outsiders, and it girls.

As with any film noir, dashes of humor prevent the proceedings from becoming too turgid and Brick is not above in poking fun at the absurdities of the world it has created. For example, in one scene, so called gangsters (in reality, kids in trenchcoats) who have gone to the mattresses, are served glasses of milk by the mother of one of the characters. Similarly, during heated negotiations in the basement of a house, one character announces to another, "it is time to go up to the real world." In the next shot, we see both of them sitting in the kitchen of the house. One is munching cereal, the other is trying to look threatening over an oatmeal cookie.

Brick is an object lesson in creating a standout low-budget independent film. DP Steve Yedlin conjures up images worthy of a film ten times more expensive. The acting is solid throughout with many of the principals having put in long hours in the TV trenches. Ultimately though, it is the twisty plot and the language that elevates Brick into the rarefied heights of '80s teen classic The Breakfast Club and the film noir masterpiece, Chinatown. There aren't very many films that inspire comparisons to both! Unfortuantely, it is also the language that might also prove its biggest hindrance to general acceptance. Releasing in the US theaters later this spring, this paean to loners everywhere, like Donnie Darko, seems destined to find its real audience on DVD.

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- February 15, 2006 7:14 PM // Film , Review

Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi

Student revolution in the 1960s wasn't just confined to street fighting men in Paris or US campus agitations against The Man. Inspired by the new noises coming from the West, Che Guevara, the rise of China and the Soviet Union, and the Naxal movement in India itself, well-to-do students in elite Indian universities began to agitate as well. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A Thousand Dreams Such As These) traces the intertwining path of three such students, Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon), Geeta (Chitrangada Singh), and Vikram (Shiney Ahuja), through this period in their lives and beyond. In doing so, Hazaaron touches a section of recent Indian history not often explored by mainstream Bollywood.

The film opens in 1969 with Siddharth's return from Calcutta (which he found to be an "awesome" experience) to St. Stephens College in Delhi. He has an on-again off-again relationship with Gita, a student who has mostly been educated abroad. Both are activists with Siddharth the hot-head and Gita swept up in the emotion. Both have relatively well off parents. Completing the triangle is Vikram, who loves Gita but doesn't share her politics, preferring to observe from the sidelines. His father is a retired Congress leader who chooses not to benefit from his power, hence Vikram knows indulging in these activities is not a luxury he can afford. Every movement has its poseurs and the film has fun lampooning those upper class doyens who believed in The Cause yet found scholarships from US universities too tempting to pass up. Matters come to a head when Siddharth announces he'll be moving to the backwaters of Bihar to try to exhort the peasants. With threats of police crackdowns and better opportunities beckoning, his fellow revolutionaries drop out one by one.

After the prologue, the film resumes in 1973, several years down the line. Gita is now married to an IAS officer, yet she often leaves for Bihar for secret trysts with Siddharth who is waging his own lone war against the government. Vikram increasingly finds himself being known as a "fixer", a middleman who can pull strings in politcal circles to gets things done. However, he hasn't let go of Gita and when he sees her at a party, his passion reignites.

Epic in its narrative sweep, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is, first and foremost, an examination of how youthful ideals fare when faced with reality. That it does so with the Naxal movement and the Emergency as a backdrop is nothing if not ambitious. I found it impressive that the script was original, it was reminiscent of many Bengali novels of that period (of course, most, if not all, Bengali novels of the '70s had the Naxal revolution in the background). The acting by the leads, particularly a luminous Chitrangada Singh and the charming Shiney Ahuja contribute greatly towards maintaining viewer interest. Additionally, the way the film is able to effortlessly veer from comedy to tragedy to horror to pathos ensures a feeling of off-balance throughout - you never can quite predict what's going to happen next. However, once the final frames roll, the final feeling is that of an elegy for the post partition generation. Perhaps the title of the film itself, taken from a poem by the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, is an allusion to their loss.

Overall, director Sudhir Mishra has crafted a worthy followup to Chameli, yet a few flaws prevent Hazaaron from being an international sensation on the lines of Farewell My Concubine and other films of that ilk. First, there isn't enough context here for a foreign audience - anyone unfamiliar with Indian politics might find it hard to understand some of the events occuring in the film. Second, the film itself doesn't always flow very smoothly - characters appear and then disappear. Sometimes, it feels parts of the exposition are missing as well. Nonetheless, the nits don't prevent Hazaaron from being a strong entry into the growing genre of "multiplex" films, so called because the additional screens afforded by such theatres allow non-masala fare such as this to find an audience. It's just a shame that audience could have been a global one with a little bit more care. As Hazaaron shows, all the necessary pieces are in place!

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- January 22, 2006 11:19 AM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Paheli

Apparently Paheli stands for "riddle" in Hindi. First, kudos to Amol Palekar, Shahrukh and Gauri Khan and the rest of the production team on the packaging. The costumes and sets shine, the dances are eye catching, the music is pleasant, and the CGI effects are mostly well blended into the narrative. Even the acting is nowhere near as over-the-top as could be expected. Paheli has been labeled as an experiment and, to its credit, it reaches for something a little different, namely infusing a touch of folksy magic into the story of a lonely newly-wedded wife whose husband has deserted her for family business but whose needs are filled by a ghost. Looking at the premise, it seems it would be hard to get more chick flick than this - not that there's anything wrong with that. But somehow, the whole combination just doesn't generate enough heat for lift-off. The whole affair is strangely leaden and that's the real mystery here. And yes, in case you are wondering, Amitabh Bachchan makes yet another guest appearance in his ongoing attempt to kill any desi version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (tentatively titled Zero Degrees of Amitabh Bachchan).

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- January 4, 2006 10:38 PM // Bollywood , Review

Nanopses

The Monster Jilebi Strikes Again

Paheli

Inspired by the original Bollywood lexicon and the notion of short shorts, here are some nano film synopses (or nanopses, if you will) for 2005. If anything, I was even more stringent:

  • Paheli - Love conquers gall.
  • D - Pre.
  • Black - Eyewash.
  • My Wife's Murder - My Husband's Blunder(s).
  • Ramji Londonwaley - High carb, low fibre.
  • Kya Kool Hai Hum - Kya Bozo Hai Tum
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- December 31, 2005 3:30 PM // Bollywood , Review

Mangal Pandey - The Rising

Over the course of the history of Indian films, us desis have evolved our own rating terminology. These include "it's ok," "timepass" and "don't expect anything." This is in addition to the usual "good", "great music!", "xxx Khan is wearing cool clothes in the movie, yaar!" and "big in Chennai!" Okay, I made up the last two but, on a more serious note, there is a phrase I do use: "honorable effort." This refers to Bollywood films, often by directors who made a name for themselves on the art film circuit, that attempt to tackle worthwhile issues yet are too flawed to earn a "good" rating. A good example is Thakshak, directed by Govind Nihalani of Ardh Satya (Half Truth) fame. Page 3 is a more recent illustration. The Rising, helmed as it is by former art house darling Ketan Mehta (Mirch Masala, Maya Memsaab), barely escapes falling into this category. It is a rousing effort with epic aspirations that is ultimately marred by the little things. It's a good, but not great, film.

How best to bring well known events alive for an audience? That's a key challenge faced by a historical epic. How do you hold an audience's interest over a story for which the ending is already known? One possibility is to get the ending over with first and retrace the steps that led up to it. Nine Hours to Rama tried this approach, starting off with Mahatma Gandhi's assasination. When The Rising opens and we see Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan) getting ready to be hung, my first thought was the film was attempting the flashback approach, since anyone familiar with the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or the first Indian War of Independence) will know that's how Mangal Pandey met his end. But Ketan Mehta and writer Farrukh Dhondy have other ideas and, just before the signal is to be given, a messenger comes running with the news that the executioner is nowhere to be found. No local will hang this man. The execution is stayed and we are left with sufficient doubt so as to focus on the proceedings that follow. A nifty twist.

Rewind to a skirmish in Afganistan in 1853 where we see the bravery of sepoy Mangal Pandey as he rescues officer William Gordon (Toby Stephens) from certain death, becoming gravely injured himself in the process. As both men recover, we see the disparate way the East India Company treats its officers who are housed in tents vis a vis the native Indian soldiers who are left outside. William is powerless to help Mangal but he does gift him his own gun for protection. Thus, a bond starts to form between the two men. By 1856, the division is housed in Barrackpore in Calcutta and Mangal and Wlliam are becoming inseparable. But there are clouds looming over the horizon regarding the origins of the grease used for the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles. A combination of cow and pig fat, it is equally abhorrent to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys who must bite down on them as part of the loading process.

One of the interesting curveballs the film throws at us is that it's agenda is not necessarily anti-colonialism. Sure, there's talk from the British officers about the "burden of the white man" but it's all intended to justify the policies of the British East India Company. Those were all about profit - specificially, draining as much wealth as possible from the Indian countryside. This involved forcing the farmers to grow poppy seeds which then could be sold to China as part of the opium trade. By paying the farmers fixed prices and using the Indian sepoys to keep them in line, the Company reaped huge dividends. In that sense, most of the film is more about the evils of capitalism, monopolies and globalization. That the film includes a sympathetic British character and points out some good accomplished by the Company, namely the banning of sati, supports this notion. It's the profit motive then that ultimately leads to the uprising as the Company tries to cover up the origins of the grease because replacements would be too costly to the bottom line. The sepoys, smarting at their inferior treatment, finally have had enough.

That Mangal Pandey is able to raise these issues in an entertaining manner is its biggest strength. However, a number of nits ultimately prevent the film from rising to its potential. First, Mangal Pandey himself is just not sufficiently well developed. Though well acted by Aamir Khan, we really have no information on his background and he remains a cipher. Whatever dramatic license the script takes, namely his relationship with the prostitute Heera (Rani Mukherjee), is controversial and arguably unnecessary. On the other hand, the character of William Gordon is much more well rounded - perhaps because it is completely invented. Next, the device of having some fellows on an elephant chanting out "mangala, mangala" at periodic intervals serves no discernible purpose and can get annoying to boot. Additionally, some of the song sequences, particularly in the second half, are unnecessary and impede the flow. Also, the climax and ending of the film somehow left me unsatisfied. With a title like "The Rising," I was expecting more on the actual rebellion but the film just ends with the incidents that triggered the whole thing. Finally, a small fashion blooper nearly took Shari out of the film - she noticed that Heera's nails were manicured in the French style, quite in vogue currently and, therefor, unlikely to be used by someone of that era in India. All in all then, the film could have been much more. But, if it serves to remind folks that there was much more to India's fight for independence than one half naked fakir, it will have served its purpose.

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- October 11, 2005 9:56 AM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Kronos/Asha at the YBCA

There have been many words of praise for Asha Bhosle over the years, some conventional ("most recorded artist"), some musical ("largest vocabulary of vocal techniques") and some offbeat ("grandmotherly Elvis"). To this I would simply add: she must take her share of blame for India's population explosion. The reason is simple enough. In her own words:

As Asha Bhosle struggled to make her mark, her biggest competition and mark for comparison was her own sister. "Didi [the elder sister] was singing the love songs, the sad songs, and I knew that if I did something different, something new, only then would people give me songs," says Bhosle.

The "something different" was cabaret songs. At that time, in Bollywood films the heroine had a holier-than-thou virginal image that was made even more ethereal by Lata Mangeshkar's singing. But filmmakers also wanted a little masala to spice up their films. That was where the vamps came in. Some actresses, like the exotic-looking Helen, made an entire career playing the vamp in hundreds of films. And the voice behind the vamp was invariably Bhosle's. In the film "Taxi Driver" she sings "Jeene Do Jiyo" [Live and Let Live], probably the first cabaret song in Hindi cinema.

It clicked. "Many have tried to imitate Lata, and some have come close. But no one has tried to imitate Asha, because no one can," says music aficionado Arvind Kumar, the founding editor of India Currents magazine.

To date, the songs she sung under the aegis of R. D. Burman have probably been some of the most remixed/covered songs out of Bollywood. Additionally,

Instead of cringing at the remixes that were pouring into the market, she did the next best thing - she joined the bandwagon and brought out the remixed variety of own old numbers. She also came out with a video cassette entitled "Janam Samjha Karo". Then there is the new album "Rahul and I". Asha never ceases to amaze. She is constantly repackaging herself. And so the Asha magic continues to enthral.

However, the Kronos Quartet represented a new level of collaboration for Asha-ji and I was curious as all heck to see how it would turn out on September 22, 2005, at the Yerba Buena Center Theater in San Francisco, the first of a limited set of dates. I needn't have worried - Asha-ji sounds as great as ever. But first things first - the first half of the concert was devoted to Kronos premiering San Francisco based minimalist composer Terry Riley's The Cusp of Magic, a work in six parts. In tone, the parts varied from apocalyptic (The Cusp of Magic) to staccato (Buddha's Bedroom) to whimsical (The Nursery). The latter, in particular, was augmented by a backdrop of noises from stuffed animals, the last sound of the movement being that of a lone toy frog being wrung. Throughout, I was impressed by the sheer aural variety on offer, not to mention the virtuoso ensemble playing. In addition to Wu Man on pipa, the Quartet featured David Harrington on violin (and various percussive instruments), John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and keyboards and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello. In addition, we had the wild and wacky samples being triggered from time to time. A good harbinger for the second half and the main event!

"Atithi Deva Bhava - the guest is god. You are my guests and I'll try my best to please you," were Asha-ji's opening words when she strode to the stage at the start of the second half of the show. Apart from a little feedback in the first song and perhaps the hint of a cracked voice in another, this was an audio sensory experience. That included Asha-ji's banter between shows. She apologized for her poor command of English and asked band leader David Harrington to translate the song titles. Her in-song banter quickly endeared her to the audience, an eclectic mix of desis and the San Francisco art crowd. The choice of songs was inspired - a mixture of Bollywood staples such as Dum Maro Dum ("Take Another Toke") and Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne ("You've Stolen My Heart") with more leftfield titles. "They picked the most difficult songs," she complained to the audience at one point, rather jokingly of course and that endeared her to us all the more. Of the more adventurous songs, we were particularly impressed by the choice of two Bengali songs of R. D. Burman. Asha-ji sang Ekta Deshlai Kathi Jalao ("Light a Match") with all the coquettishness of a sixteen year girl. For Nadir Pare Uttche Dhoa ("Smoke Rises Across The River"), she took a break, and Quartet played with all the might and passion of many times their number. Upon returning, she commented that, accustomed as she was to working with hundreds of musicians at any given time, she found Kronos' versatility to be simply amazing. Their arrangements sparkled as well - subtly extending Asha-ji's vocals in one song, setting up a counterpoint in another, they were always less than obvious. By the time she started Piya Tu Ab To Aaja ("Lover Come To Me Now"), the incongruous sight of a grandmotherly figure providing breathy, panting vocals had been replaced by that of a diva still in regal command of her faculties (if you closed your eyes).

I found the audience attendance for the first show to be disappointing but, in retrospect, it was to be expected given the eclectic nature of the musical marriage. I understand the attendance was much higher the next day and, overall, CD sales outside the hall were unusually brisk. A good harbinger of things to come perhaps?

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- September 28, 2005 6:27 PM // Bay Area , Bollywood , Music , Review , Select

Triptyque Sans Titre

When it comes to evaluating dance as performance, particularly modern ones, I am the first to admit my critical faculties are woefully short. In particular, the absence of narrative often forces me to gauge such pieces purely on visceral impact. And on that criteria, I have to say Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula's latest work, Triptyque Sans Titre. performed at the Yerba Buena Center on Sept 17th, is particularly effective. I can't say whether it's any good or not but I do know it left an impact. Loosely billed as the flashback memories of an amnesiac who has a story to tell (but has now forgotten it), the piece is an exploration of the horrors of colonialism and internecine warfare suffered by the people of Congo. As befits the title, there are three main parts each accompanied by a live soundscape from the musician Joachim Montessuis. Armed with a laptop, a mic and one or two electronic gadgets, he crouches on the floor amidst a landscape of naked electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling and plastic bags littered all over. The pattern is the same each time: a drone in the beginning which grows and ebbs and finally builds to a shattering crescendo (so much so that the Yerba Buena management provided earplugs to patrons prior to the start of the show), finally falling away to silence when we can finally hear the dancers chant. The dancers run to and fro, perhaps suggesting escape from external enemies, fight with each other, cover themselves with bags and then, at the end of it all, come together in unison, suggesting a rapproachment of some sort. A projector throws up pictures of babies and families, the real victims of the Congo war. Strong stuff.

PS - The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a review here.

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- September 26, 2005 6:01 PM // Bay Area , Dance , Review

Lady In A Cage

The success of Psycho opened the doors for Lady in a Cage, a low-budget chiller set in an anonymous city over a July 4th weekend. Cornelia Hilyard's (Olivia De Haviland) son Malcolm (played by William Swan) is leaving for the holidays. We get to see a close up of a note he's leaving for his mother suggesting he may be close to killing himself. Cornelia is disabled by a hip injury, hence they've installed an elevator to transport her in-between the ground floor of her house and the top floor. Malcolm's departure kicks off a series of coincidences which cause the power in the house to go out while Cornelia is in the elevator. She is trapped - she rings the external emergency alarms but there is no one to listen. The house is on a main thoroughfare and everyone is busy trying to get out of town. Finally, a vagrant (Jeff Corey) finds his way inside but he is not there to help. His looting and subsequent attempts to pawn off his findings attract the attention of a couple of local hoodlums (James Caan in an early major role) who then find their way to the house. Cornelia must find a way to save herself while still pinned between floors.

There are a surprising number of themes at work in Lady In A Cage: the ease with which order descends into chaos, barbarians at the gate, the brutally impersonal nature of urban life, youthful rebellion and the Oedipus Complex, to name a few. Helmed by veteran TV director Walter Graumann, the film is rarely less than believable, once you accept the Rube Goldberg-like nature of the premise. Unlike Psycho whose impact has diminished by virtue of over-exposure, Lady in A Cage is a buried nugget which hasn't lost its power to thrill and shock.

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- August 14, 2005 8:39 PM // Film , Review

Sarkar

Somewhere in the course of the past two decades, Amitabh Bachchan went from an "angry young man" to being an ubiquitous old man. Oh sure, in between there were the dog days of the collapse of his ABCL venture and his subsequent rehabilitation via the Kaun Banega Crorepati (Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire) TV show. Post career resuscitation, Mr. Bachchan seems to have tucked into his new onscreen career with relish. But for the rest of us, it's a case of too much pickle ruining the chapati. If he's not invoking that distinctive voice of his for a film voiceover, he's busy lecturing some young buck on family values or hectoring the audience on patriotism. Even if he's not on the bill, there's no escaping a cameo appearance from the man. These days, a major Bollywood production is made notable by his absence. And of course, if you turn on Indian TV, he's selling something in a commercial near you!

Thus, director Ram Gopal Verma chief achievement with Sarkar, as far as I am concerned, is that he restores Amitabh Bachchan's grandeur as an actor. He does this by stripping away the bombast and the many layers of acting tics Amitabh has accumulated over the years. Here, Amitabh speaks volumes via the stillness of his face and eyes - gone are the usual dramatic flourishes. Of course, if you see Ajay Devgan's performance in Company, you'll see this is a tactic often used in Verma's productions. But the danger there lies in underacting the role, particularly as Indian audiences are not usually served up subtlety very often in their cinematic diet. All credit then to Amitabh for communicating with a look or a glance what would take pages of exposition and thundering soundtrack to convey in a standard masala flick.

If only the rest of the film stood up so well! This film was tirelessly publicized on two fronts: first, as the Indian answer to the Godfather and, second, as a vehicle for both father Amitabh and son Abhishek Bachchan. It may be argued that the marketing went overboard on both counts. Certainly, the sight of the two stars walking to the Siddhivinayak temple on foot for "personal reasons" on the eve of the film's release didn't hurt it's chances.

As for the film, even if you were holed up in an ashram in the Himalayas, Ram Gopal Verma explicitly reminds you that this is a tribute when the film starts to roll. Unfortunately, this tactic distracts from enjoying the film on its own merits. Matters aren't helped when, in the opening sequence, a man trudges to the Sarkar's residence, looking for retribution for his raped daughter. Okay, there is no wedding going on at the time, but still ... Thus, throughout the film, I was left drawing comparisons between it and the original. Would Sonny get killed this time around? How about the Godfather? How would they handle the transformation of Michael Corleone? Where the hell was Fredo? And Sarkar suffers by comparison. There are places where it hints at some original twists but it doesn't explore them in sufficient detail. What remains is Godfather-lite, a place where the head honcho, Sarkar, really is a good man who eschews organized crime, where the women are mere window dressing and where Abhishek Bachchan and Kay Kay Menon's fine performances are wasted because their roles are so poorly developed. Don't get me wrong - this is a polished production that is an order of magnitude better than Verma's last film, Naach, although the music is too bombastic in places, frequently building to false climaxes that lead nowhere. Like the bulk of Ram Gopal Verma's productions, it's eminently worth watching. It just doesn't scale the heights of the maestro's previous achievements.

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- August 1, 2005 11:56 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select

Retrospective: Black

Note: This review was originally written on March 24, 2005, when the film was still playing in the movie halls.

After hearing much hype about Black, its truncated length of two hours (as opposed to three hour bladder busters) and "performances of a lifetime" from Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, I have to admit I was curious to see whether Sanjay Leela Bhansali had overcome the excesses of Devdas and delivered a taut, art-house type feature. So, we went to see it at the Naz in Fremont on Tuesday. It had been miserably wet in the Bay Area over the past couple of weeks - yet the theater was packed.

blackTheFilm.jpg The storm und drang inside the theater started right from the opening frame and didn't really let up (with a couple of merciful moments), until the very end. I would have been surprised if the projectionist hadn't taken mounds of towels to dry down the film reels before the next showing, so intent was the film in wringing out juice from every scene, every character, every prop. It rained incessantly. It snowed. There was a water fountain in case the first two weather elements didn't come through. The plot? Rani Mukherjee plays Michelle, a blind-mute girl and Amitabh Bachchan is her teacher, who sticks by her despite all the odds. Mr. Bachchan has easily any number of films where he gave performances far superior to this. You only have to look as far as Khakee to see his real ability. Here, his performance becomes a wholehearted tribute to William Shatner - no scenery was left unchewed. As for hers, well it is always tough to evaluate the performance of someone who is playing someone disabled. Play someone like this and the decks are stacked in your favor - but I wasn't sure whether her wild flailings were typical of folks similarly afflicted or because of what the director had deliberately asked her to wildly overact. After all, Sanjay Leela Bhansali did make sure we know of his nod to Charlie Chaplin through her physical performance! And in case we missed the point, a Charlie Chaplin flick plays in the local theater which the characters walk past - I kid you not! But did the film really intend to pay tribute to The Exorcist? It certainly seemed that way, particularly during the younger Michelle's histrionics, rolled eyes and all.

As for trimming down the fat, well, yes there were no songs. But all the other elements of a standard Bollywood masala film were present. The ever present score, replete with deep drums and throaty aahs, hammered away in the background, filling in emotion when the words weren't enough. The gestures were grand, the dialogue grandiose ("it is not the eyes that dream, it is the mind"), the setting a burnished, grand India that really never existed (except as India-on-the-Alps or wherever this film was shot). But I was left wondering - were they substitutes for character development? For effective storytelling? The film is a big hit and so, I suppose it did click with many people. It is being hailed as being Oscar material but I seriously doubt it'll get that far here. Just seems that it's a lot easier to gain audience sympathy if your leading character is disabled in some way. And if you look at past Bhansali productions, a certain pattern arguably does arise in this respect. Khamoshi featured a mute/deaf family. The titular character in Devdas was an emotional cripple - and an alcoholic. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was the exception and, in my personal opinion, the best thing he's done so far. Anyway, I boldly predict that Mr. Bhansali, for an encore, will do a film featuring a wisecracking (but autistic), gin swigging quadriplegic. Should be a triple hanky feature.

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- July 18, 2005 10:19 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select

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

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

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

Retrospective: Khakee

khakee.jpgA surprisingly entertaining production from industry veteran Raj Kumar Santoshi, Khakee (translated as Khaki, a reference to the color of the uniform worn by Indian police) stars Amitabh Bachchan as an aging police instructor Anant Kumar Shrivastav who is suddenly entrusted with leading a convoy to transport some criminals from Chandangarh to Mumbai for a court case. He's helped in this by a casanova young inspector (Akshay Kumar). The convoy soon runs into trouble on the return journey when a gang led by Ajay Devgan tries, by any means necessary, to stop them from reaching their destination. Aishwarya Rai also makes an appearance as a stranded motorist.

Several factors separate Khakee from a dance-by-numbers Bollywood production. First is the plot and character development: they exist! In particular, the film takes time to add detail to the lives of even the supporting characters and this helps greatly in building the tension that follows. Because there is a coherent narrative, we are better able to appreciate some of the subsequent twists and they do occur. Secondly, Amitabh Bachchan deftly combines both gravitas and levitas in his role, using his age to lend vulnerability to his character, but not afraid to poke fun at it. This is not the first time he's acknowledging his age (Baghban) but rarely has he done it with such elan (think Sean Connery in The Untouchables). Akshay Khanna too fits into his role with an easy charm. Ajay Devgan, venturing to the other side of the fence, does just fine as a scenery chewing villain as does Ms. Rai, as love interest/vamp. Finally, as this is old school Bollywood, we have to have songs and dances, but, as a measure of how times have changed, they are kept to a minimum and when they do occur, they play in abbreviated form. I particularly liked the shifting of the color palettes for "Dil Dooba." In addition, the songs are actually very catchy indeed - the heavily techno-ized "Aisa Jadoo" was a huge hit in India. So, overall, great entertainment, though things slow a little in the second half.

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- May 18, 2005 11:42 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

Retrospective: Ab Tak Chappan

atc.jpgThis is the debut film of Shimit Amin, the LA based editor who went back to India after Ram Gopal Verma offered him an opportunity at his production arm, The Factory. The title of the film can be roughly translated as "56 And Counting" and it refers to the number of kills that lead Police Inspector Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) has notched up in his pursuit of terrorists and criminals in Mumbai. The film is a bleak look at the phenomenon of "encounter killings" - a convenient way of disposing off criminals for the police unwilling to entrust them to the vagaries of the Indian judicial system. The fireworks really start when Sashu Agashe, hitherto accustomed to meting out rough justice, starts finding himself at the receiving end. The ensuing cat and mouse game is riveting and the subsequent denouement is both shocking and cathartic. It's made all the more remarkable by Nana Patekar's searing performance. Present in nearly every frame of the film, he's as magnetic as he was in his breakthrough roles in Parinda and Prahaar, yet he never resorts to cheap histrionics. Special mention must also be made for the background score consisting mainly of stark, analog soundscapes, very unlike Bollywood, yet very fitting. A tough police thriller in the tradition of Heatand Internal Affairs, Ab Tak Chappan is one of the best films of 2004.

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- May 15, 2005 11:54 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review

SFIFF 2005: Black Friday

Black Friday (2004, dir. Anurag Kashyap) is a ten ton haymaker punch into Bollywood's bloated midriff. When the film starts, you'll see the usual censor board certificate and then the legend "Jhamu Sugandh Presents." All resemblances with your usual run of the mill masala flick end thereafter. Comparisons with docudramas such as JFK and The Battle of Algiers are much more apt. Yet the film also has Indian roots, blending the worlds of the underworld dramas Satya and Company.

Based on a book by S. Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday is a reenactment of the investigation into the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Inspector Rakesh Maria (Kay Kay Menon) is assigned the unenviable task of tracking down the perpetrators. And to make matters worse, this is the holy month of Ramadan - a false move by the police can exacerbate the tense situation in Mumbai, already reeling from riots in 1992.

Many, many factors contribute to Black Friday being a landmark Indian film. These include:

  • It's based on a non-fiction book. Not a frequent occurrence in the Mumbai film world.
  • The narrative flow: Kashyap opts for an episodic approach, jumping back and forth in time to focus on specific threads that converge at the explosion and then unravel again, as the perpetrators scatter across India (and outside). This technique has been tried in Bollywood before (see Yuva) but here it feels less a gimmick and more a legitimate storytelling device.
  • Mixture of TV footage and live action. The montage of stills that end the film.
  • The authenticity: this movie feels real. From the gritty interrogation scenes to the locations all over the country, this is the India the ITDC will not be displaying on their posters. The BBC film crews, on the other hand, will be busy making notes on what slums to visit the next time they get down from their planes in Mumbai. One minor quibble: the Dubai scenes don't feel like they could've been from the early '90s, largely because of the car models featured are from a later date.
  • The investigation: the crime thriller, as a genre, is moribund in Bollywood. There are many reasons for this, notably the stylistic straitjacket that most Bollywood products have to be trussed up in. There have been exceptions (like Tarquieb) but for the most part, it is an uphill battle to introduce logic in a business ruled by emotion. Here, the film poses a tantalizing question in the beginning: how do you find the culprits in a country of billions? Where do you even start? The film provides many insights as to how it is done and a lot of it is not pretty.
  • The performances, largely by a cast of unknowns, are outstanding - the remarkable part of this is the understated nature of the acting. For example, we see one of the perpetrators, tired of being continually on the run from the police, on the verge of giving himself up voluntarily. To illustrate his desire for normalcy, for marriage, the camera simply focuses on him staring at a couple of attractive girls in a Calcutta tram. Too often, the temptation in a project like this would be to resort to soul stirring speeches, scenery chewing grandstanding, and much melodrama. There are a couple of confrontational scenes but their effectiveness is underlined by the fact that there are so few of them.
  • The even handedness: Black Friday does not take sides. It goes out of its way to make the point that this cycle of violence has been continuing for centuries. And for the good of the country, it is best to find ways to break the cycle, not find blame. To drive home the point, the film opens and closes with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
  • The chase scene: there is a chase on foot that must rank as one of the best I've seen. William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die In LA) would be proud.

The one nit with Black Friday is that it drags on a little too long in the end, thus diluting its impact. But that's not to take away from its overall effect and message: violence of this type, by creating more poor and dispossessed, simply begets more of the same. Spellbinding yet resolutely uncommercial, this is the best release from India we've seen this year.

In a recent development, the film has been embroiled in legal court wrangles:

In January this year, Mushtaq Moosa Tarani and 36 other accused in the Bombay bombings case had moved court on the grounds that the film would create a bias against them at a time when the court verdict is awaited.

Last week, the Bombay High Court imposed a stay on the film's release till the designated Terrorist and Disruptive Act (TADA) court in the blast case delivered its judgement. The producers now intend to move the Supreme Court against the decision.

Let's hope these issues are resolved soon - the filmgoing public deserve no less.

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- May 3, 2005 10:12 PM // Bollywood , Film , Review , Select

SFIFF 2005: Brothers

BrothersOne of the top Danish releases of 2004, Brothers (dir. Susanne Bier) is a gripping, unflinching look at the effects of war on the human psyche and the ensuing turmoil to both the vets that return home and their immediate families. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) and Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) are blood brothers but their paths through life could not be more dissimilar: Michael is a ranking officer in the army, an upstanding citizen, happily married to Sarah (Connie Nielsen) with two adorable daughters. Jannik has just been released from prison (the starting point of the film) where he served time for robbery and assault. He also suffers from bouts of rage - when Michael suggests he apologize to the woman he hurt, Jannik starts an argument which culminates in him pulling the parking brakes in a moving car and striding off in a huff. He later returns that night to a family dinner in celebration of his release and of Michael's imminent deployment to the NATO forces in Afganisthan. Their father's cold treatment of Jannik suggests he is very much the black sheep of the family. Subsequent events in Afganisthan, when Michael is captured by the mujahideen and ultimately rescued, completely upend this established order.

Superbly scripted and acted, this is the first film I recall that deals with the soldiers returning from the war on terror. Setting aside discussions on the morality of the war, this drama is reminiscent of the great coming-home Vietnam films of the '70s (Deer Hunter, Coming Home) yet its tone is more intimate. Greatly contributing to this is the grainy picture (the film was shot in high definition and transferred to 35mm) and the gritty, hand-held camerawork with extreme close-ups of the faces and eyes of the characters. Another difference is the emotional pace of the film - it builds and builds until the final events come as cathartic release, both for the characters and the audience.

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- May 1, 2005 1:49 PM // Film , Review

SFIFF 2005: Three Extremes

three_extremes.jpgThree Extremes, playing at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival, offers a smorgasbord of three horror shorts from some of East Asia's best known directors:

Dumplings (dir Fruit Chan, Hong Kong 2004): An ex Hong Kong soap star comes across a purveyor of dumplings that promise youthful rejuvenation. But can she stomach the secret ingredient?

Cut (dir Park Chan-Wook, Korea 2004): A horror movie director comes home one night to find an unexpected visitor who proceeds to stage his own night of terror featuring the director and his wife.

Box (dir Takashi Miike, Japan 2004): An author dreams of being buried alive in a box while she suffocates inside covered in a plastic sheet. Her dream is rooted in her childhood as a contortionist when she competed with her sister for the attentions of a magician.

Of the three shorts, we liked Dumplings best. There were times we saw the women in the audience gasp, so nasty were the horrors implied. There was a lot of blood, particularly later on, but the real effectiveness of this piece lay in the sound design and Christopher Doyle's exemplary cinematography. Otherworldy machinery squeaked menacingly in the background while we heard every crunchy bite taken of the dumplings up close and personal. Similarly, the images on the screen packed a mean punch: an extreme close up of a cleaver knife chopping something unidentifiable but grisly; a woman's neck; clouds of blood swirling in water.

The main value of Cut, the second entry, lies in the game the director, Park Chan-Wook, plays with the audience - will he dare do it or won't he? In the process, Park shows he takes no prisoners - gouts of blood are shed, digits cleaved, a young kid is nearly strangled (unthinkable in Hollywood) and our jaw drops further and further until the last, horrific, denouement. Will the lead character, the horror movie director, or his wife escape alive? We're just not sure and we remain riveted to the screen. As in Old Boy, revenge is on the menu and a bit of consideration shows up many plot holes in both. But the film developed many other themes that allowed it to leap over any logical flaws. In a more limited time, Park doesn't have that same space.

Box is the most restrained of the trio - it didn't have the same sledgehammer effect of the other two. While it played effectively with the line separating dreams and reality, the payoff wasn't as satisfying as the other two. But only by comparison!

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- April 24, 2005 11:50 PM // Film , Review

The Bad and The Beautiful

What a hidden gem! Long before we had The Player and The Big Picture (not to mention Bollywood's severe fascination with navel gazing) there was The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), a film that unflinchingly showed the inner workings of Hollywood. I expected to see loads of expedient affairs, backstabbings, arguments and on-set fights and they're all here, courtesy of a crackerjack script by Charles Schnee working off a short story by George Bradshaw. What I didn't expect was the film's original approach. Instead of taking the viewpoint of genius producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), the film elects to tell his tale through three of his former associates (Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell). Jonathan's successive betrayal of each of them only adds further layers of complexity to the portrait of a man who just lives for film, so much so he cannot face anything else after a production has wrapped. As an aspiring actress grappling with the shadow cast by her illustrious father, Lana Turner is mesmerizing but Kirk Douglas still manages to steal every scene with her by sheer force of his personality. The film won several Academy Awards, the most deserving of which was for the screenplay and the most inexplicable for supporting actress (Gloria Grahame playing a southern belle, perhaps benefiting from the holdover effect of Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire two years earlier).

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- April 13, 2005 9:31 PM // Film , Review

Page 3

page3.jpg Many Bollywood flims suffer from what I call the "second half" syndrome. The first half of the film actually works. Post intermission, however, it's a different story - literally. Usually ultra crappy. It's like the filmmakers had a contractual stipulation to deliver a three hour magnum opus but used up all their good ideas (and budget) in the first half. I could go on and on about this but for the time being, I'll just name two films, both made by talented directors, that fell prey to this: Abhay (directed by Kamal Hasan) and Jungle (Ram Gopal Verma).

Page 3 has the opposite problem. For the first sixty percent of the movie, I was wondering what precisely was the plot or the point as we meandered from one fashion show to another. Everybody onscreen seemed to be having a lot of fun. We, alas, weren't. Then an explosion occurred and the film tightened up considerably and actually seemed to head into interesting territory before ending a little abruptly. Page 3 intends to be an expose of the Mumbai glitterati - the folks who attend the glamour parties and of the journalists that cover said happenings for page three of the English newspapers. Konkona Sensharma plays a naive journalist that gets sucked by the hoi-polloi into their world before discovering, poor lamb, that they are not very nice people after all. Atul Kulkarni plays a reporter assigned to the crime beat of the same newspaper and is thus, naturally, a man of substance that can serve as a conscience to Ms. Sensharma (and often does). Before the blast occurred, I was thinking this film could effectively be summarized by the tagline "five parties, a funeral and a whole lotta moralizing", as it seemed too preachy yet exploitative, a classic case of trying to have your chaat and eat it too. Anyway, the post explosion events went a long way towards redeeming the film, but wasn't quite enough to rescue it completely. See Satta by the same director for a much more effective piece of filmmaking.

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- April 12, 2005 12:02 AM // Bollywood , Review