Friday, December 28, 2007

77 Barton Street

“Joy Division’s guitarist, Bernard Sumner, recalls teenage years blighted by the simpering commerciality of the pop charts: he told me recently, with a wince, that one of the reasons he’d wanted to form a band was hearing the song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Not enough attention has been paid to how depressing light entertainment can be....The teenagers who formed Joy Division found their role models in bands from a previous era that had ‘lifted the lid on things’, as Sumner puts it: the Doors, the Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground. Like other post-punk bands, Joy Division believed that music could be a medium for unsettling ideas. They also believed in the DIY aesthetic (putting out records on their own label, or a small independent label), and rejected punk and all the sloganeering that had gone with it. Tony Wilson, a hugely influential figure who ran Joy Division’s record label, Factory, explained the shift: ‘Punk enabled you to say “Fuck you,” but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say “I’m fucked,” and that was Joy Division.’”

—Dave Haslam, “77 Barton Street,” from the London Review of Books, 3 January 2008

A lot of this is journalistic oversimplification: plenty of punk bands were self-excoriating, and as for sloganeering, a buddy of mine and I recently spent half an hour trying to unpack the lyrics of the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” (here’s a sample: “Claustrophobia / There’s too much paranoia / There’re too many closets / So when will we fall?”; I’m sure there must a slogan in there somewhere). The idea that Joy Division rejected punk will be puzzling to anyone familiar with “Interzone” or “Shadowplay” or “Disorder” or “Ice Age” or any of their music, really. And the DIY aesthetic they embraced was central to the ideology of punk, even if in practice many bands (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Gang of Four) ultimately abandoned it—to their regret.

And some of what Haslam reports in the full article is hard to credit: apparently Ian Curtis’ bandmates now claim that they didn’t pay any attention to his despairing lyrics. But the article—a review of two recent books on Joy Division, as well as Anton Corbijn’s film Control (2007)—is worth reading. And despite my major misgivings (I only lasted through 20 minutes of 24-Hour Party People (2002)), it makes me want to see Control. I’ll post again on Joy Division when I do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sholay

SholayI'm hesitant to write about Sholay (1975) because it has such a revered place in Bollywood history. Sholay often makes it onto lists of the best Bollywood films, and indeed received Best Film of 50 Years at the 50th Filmfare awards ceremony. While it's hard to compare eras, it is listed by BoxOfficeIndia.com as the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time after adjusting for inflation. It's the movie that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and many of its scenes are now considered classics.

So in the face of all this acclaim, why is my reaction to Sholay so lukewarm? Why would I rather watch Rani Mukherjee and Sonali Bendre cavorting in Shimla (see my review of Chori Chori) than Amjad Khan frothing his way through his role as Sholay's psychotic villain Gabbar Singh? Before you slap your forehead in disbelief and stop reading, let me explain why, for me, Sholay doesn't live up to its legendary status.

It's been described as a "curry Western," and the parallel to Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns is deliberate. Like Leone's films, Sholay is a self-conscious pastiche of elements from other movies. In the case of Sholay, elements are lifted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), High Noon (1952), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its Japanese original Seven Samurai (1954), and Leone's own films.

Sholay's borrowings from Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) are especially blatant. Much of the plot is lifted directly from the Leone movie: two petty thieves, Jai and Veeru (a young Amitabh Bachchan and a slightly gone-to-seed Dharmendra) are recruited by a former cop (in Leone's film, it's a widow) to take revenge on the gang that terrorizes his village and that has massacred his family.

Warning: multiple spoilers follow.

Sholay's director Ramesh Sippy restages many scenes from Once Upon a Time in the West--only less effectively. In the opening moments of Once Upon a Time In the West, a young boy emerges from a house, crying, and wanders among the bodies of his murdered family. Then (if I'm remembering correctly; I haven't seen the film in 20 years) a shadow falls over him. He looks up--into the blue eyes of Henry Fonda. Your first impulse is to think that he's saved, that the sheriff has come to rescue him; Fonda has to be a good guy, of course. Then a shot rings out, the boy crumples into the dust, and we're staring into Fonda's blue eyes again. Only this time we see in them the cold stare of a brutal killer.

In Sholay's massacre scene, which comes in a flashback halfway through the film, Gabbar Singh's gang slaughters the family of the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). A young boy runs out of the house--and is immediately blasted by Gabbar Singh. There's no similar moment of (delusional) hope, or any ambiguity in the casting (Amjad Khan plays Gabbar Singh as a demented sadist from his first moments onscreen).

The action of the final gun battle in which Jai single-handedly holds off the bad guys trying to cross a bridge is also badly managed. I'm not complaining about the unerring aim of the good guys or the seemingly limitless manpower and ammunition that the gang can bring to bear--those are pretty standard features in "Westerns" of all nationalities. But at one point the gang rolls a bundle of dynamite onto the bridge. If it goes off, of course, it will destroy the bridge (making it impossible for the gang to get across), but apparently they didn't think of that. When the dynamite doesn't go off and Jai's gun falls silent, the bad guys decide to advance en masse across the bridge. You can probably guess what happens next, although the bad guys evidently couldn't. Ramesh Sippy needed to rewatch Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) or even Buster Keaton's The General (1927) to see how the bridge/dynamite thing should be handled.

There are other direct borrowings from Once Upon A Time in the West in Sholay; for example, Jai periodically plays a lonesome harmonica, just like Charles Bronson's character (named Harmonica) in the earlier film. But if the idea was to suggest a parallel between their characters, it's misguided. As Jai, Bachchan lacks Bronson's sense of inarticulate menace, and the tension between the two hired guns in Once Upon A Time In the West (Bronson's face is an impassive mask--his limited acting abilities become an essential part of what makes his character so unsettling) is replaced by Bachchan and Dharmendra's Butch Cassidy-Sundance Kid buddy act.

That act is indeed a pleasure to watch, and it's easy to understand why this film made Amitabh Bachchan the epitome of cool. Hema Malini is also terrific as the flirtatious love-interest Basanti. There are other effective moments: a Russian roulette scene which holds several surprises; and the end of the film, where the good guys don't entirely triumph and the closing off of possibilities is beautifully symbolized (I'm trying not to spoil these moments for anyone planning to see the film).

I realize that as someone who doesn't speak Hindi and who must read the dialogue in subtitles, I'm missing out on a key dimension of the movie. Most people who praise Sholay talk about its endlessly quotable dialogue (Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan are credited as the writers). But for me it's impossible to escape the feeling while watching Sholay that the movies on which it's based surpass their Bollywood reincarnation. Of course, several generations of Indian filmgoers couldn't disagree more.

P.S. For a thoughtful introduction to Sholay (and to Bollywood in general) aimed at western viewers, see the Sholay page of Philip Lutgendorf's Philip's fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Chak De! India

"Anyone who watches a movie on video is guilty of an aesthetic crime of which they are themselves the victim."

--Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

Beth's recent posts on Om Shanti Om reminded me that there are movies that are best experienced in a theater with an audience. As Exhibit A, I submit Chak De! India (2007), a movie whose plot is almost indistinguishable from any number of Hollywood sports movies. You have the ex-jock coach who's trying to redeem his own failures; you have the multi-ethnic group of fractious individuals gradually coalescing into a team; you have the rebellious star players gradually coming to see the effectiveness of the coach's "no stars" approach; and of course, you have the Big Game, where it all comes together in a moment (actually, two moments) of truth. (And no dance numbers, alas--the (few) songs serve as soundtracks to montage sequences of training or travel.)

In a theater with a cheering audience, the timeworn elements of the sports movie would probably be less apparent. On a TV screen in your living room, they're harder to ignore. But what makes Chak De! India worth watching, in spite the sports-movie clichés being checked off one by one, are the committed performances by its actors (amazingly, this is the film debut for most of the members of the team, and Shah Rukh Khan gives an excellent performance as the coach), the keenly observed details of the characters' lives, and most of all, that it's about the Indian national women's field hockey team. It was pretty great to see a group of strong athletic Indian women making no apologies for sweating, fighting (there's a great scene in an Indian McDonald's (!) where the team physically schools some impolite men in how to properly address their sisters) and playing all out on the field--all portrayed without the slow-motion prurience of a film like Personal Best.

And unlike Bend It Like Beckham's bending over backwards to assure us that the two female friends at its center are only friends, none of the team members in Chak De! India is given a crush on the coach to prove her heterosexuality. Not that the team members are portrayed as having no sexual lives; it's strongly implied that one of them is sleeping with her cricket-star fiancé, and it's treated with no undue emphasis. (Another player offers the coach sexual favors in exchange for playing time with a calculating weariness that suggests that she's had to do this before.)

If its matter-of-fact sexual politics aren't remarkable enough, there's another striking aspect of Chak De! India. Before the big game, we see the coach Kabir Khan praying to Allah for his team's success. I don't think I've seen a Hindi film before where a character's Muslim faith is treated as simply part of who they are; certainly I can't recall ever seeing any character played by SRK (himself a Muslim) invoking Allah in a film. There are also oblique references to Hindu-Muslim tensions (Kabir Khan and his mother are driven from their neighborhood after he misses the shot that would have won his Big Game) and an implied criticism of the emotional emphasis placed on sports outcomes in Indian society (though Indian society is hardly alone there--perhaps Steve Bartman could give us some insights about the overemphasis on sports in American society, if he could emerge from hiding).

In Paheli SRK endorses a woman's right to control her own sexuality, and Chak De! India attacks the pervasive sexism that views women as less capable than--and showers all the money, equipment, facilities and attention on--men. It should inspire a movement for an Indian equivalent of the US's Title IX, but its message is also broader: that equality of opportunity should exist throughout society. It's a message that we in the US should take to heart as well.

So all in all Chak De! India manages to be a pretty remarkable film in spite of the unavoidable sports clichés. See it for the small and large details of each woman's struggle to excel, for the oblique light it shines on some knotty issues in (not only) Indian culture and society, and for the sheer exuberance of the performances. And not because you'll be surprised by the outcome of the Big Game.

Postscript: after writing the above, I learned that Chak De! India is based on a true story--the gold-medal performance of the Indian women's field hockey team at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The team was led by Mamta Kharab (seen in the photo at right), on whom Chak De! India's character Komal (played by Chitrashi Rawat) is based. So reality offers the ultimate rebuke to my talk of clichés--sometimes underdogs do overcome impossible odds.

Postscript 12/6/07: It turns out that the actual Pauline Kael quote is: "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." Since both versions of the quote are a bit awkward I'm citing the correct version here, but I'm going to leave the "quote" at the head of this post as it is.