Sunday, July 20, 2008

The "Arrgh!" factor: Chandni

Bollyviewer commented on my post on Silsila and Lamhe that every Yash Chopra film has a fatal flaw. After seeing Chandni (Moonlight, 1989), I'm beginning to agree.

Chandni is played by Sridevi, and if she was irresistible in Lamhe (1991) she's even more so here. The movie could have been titled The Many Moods of Sridevi--it's basically a love poem to the actress. The camera captures her impish, playful, tender, grave, sorrowful, and loving glances in close-ups that are simply overwhelming--and this is when they're viewed on a television screen. We see her dancing in both traditional and modern costume, and (this being a Yash Chopra film) in settings as different as the Swiss mountains and the pouring monsoon rains.

Of course, the excuse for this obsession with Sridevi is ostensibly the obsession of Chandni's fiancé, Rohit (Rishi Kapoor), who has plastered the walls of his room with her photographs. Rohit is a giggling, pudgy, childlike guy with the most execrable taste in sweaters imaginable. In every scene he seems to be wearing some new knitted horror (and in the quick-change dance numbers he's shown wearing four or five of them in rapid succession). I'm sorry that I don't have some screencaps, but the image above from the Eros films site gives you some idea. Rishi's sweaters would justify a scathing post all to themselves on Ugly, Ugly, Bollywood Fugly.

Warning--spoilers follow.

Those sweaters should have been a clue: Rohit's judgment is appallingly bad. His idea of a surprise for Chandni is to shower her with rose petals from a hired helicopter. Unfortunately, as the helicopter is landing Rohit manages to fall out, and is left partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Bitter at his fate and supposedly loving Chandni so much he can't bear to see her saddled for a lifetime with an invalid like him, he angrily drives her away.

Chandni flees Rohit and his hateful family (who have always despised her) and goes to Bombay to look for a job. Late for an interview, she flags down a car at random. Of course, the driver is Lalit (Vinod Khanna), the boss of the firm she's applying to. Khanna is very handsome, with a worldliness (and a hint of world-weariness) that suggests Bryan Ferry at his most suavely seductive. When Lalit lounges casually at a bar with cigarette in hand, you practically expect him to start crooning some melancholy Jacques Brel number. Vinod's on the left, Bryan's on the right:


Lalit is perceptive, attentive and kind; best of all, he's an adult. He's experienced the pain of loss (in a flashback we see his lover Devika (Juhi Chawla, looking very Sridevi-esque) die suddenly--really suddenly, since we'd had no clue she was ill--in his arms), and it hasn't turned him into a petulant, self-pitying mess. He gradually allows himself to fall in love with Chandni, and his mother (Waheeda Rehman) couldn't approve more.

On a business trip to Switzerland, Lalit encounters who else but Rohit, who at the urging of his brother-in-law Ramesh (Anupam Kher) has finally agreed to try rehabilitation at a Swiss clinic. And after a mere four months (the miracles of Swiss medicine!) he's been completely cured of his paralysis. Lalit and Rohit form an instant friendship (shades of the "two friends in love with the same woman" plot of An American in Paris (1951), here).

Rohit decides to surprise Chandni again: he shows up at her door in Bombay in his wheelchair, and then stands up and does a few awkward dance steps (incidentally, seeing Rishi Kapoor trying to keep up with the sinuously graceful Sridevi in the dance numbers is painful). By now you'd think Rohit would have figured out that surprises aren't such a good idea. He declares that he's ready to take Chandni back--only, she breaks the news to him that she's found someone else. (After breaking off their engagement and cutting off all contact for months, what did he think?) When Lalit invites his new friend to meet his fiancée, Rohit realizes that Lalit's the new man in her life.

But instead of doing the honorable thing and leaving town, he agrees to come to Lalit and Chandni's wedding. Having done so, for the sake of his love and his friendship does he stoically swallow his pain? Of course not--he swallows half a bottle of whiskey instead, and is rendered so sloppily insensible that at the wedding he plummets down a huge staircase. Chandni rushes to his unconscious side, crying "Rohit, my Rohit!" (Her Rohit, it turns out, is uninjured.)

Now it's Lalit's turn to be crushed by sudden unwelcome knowledge. But does he go on a self-pitying binge? Does he speak bitter, angry words to his fiancée and friend? And does Chandni come to her senses and realize that Lalit is much better friend, lover and husband material than Rohit has ever been or could be?

No, no...and no. Chandni leaves on her honeymoon, all right--with Lalit's blessing, but with the wrong guy. As we see Chandni standing up in a convertible speeding through the Swiss countryside with Rohit at the wheel (wait--haven't they learned by now that seatbelts are necessary things?), and as the words "Love...never...ends..." are slowly written across the screen, my involuntary response is an inarticulate, strangulated, agonized "Arrgh!"

Update 12 November 2012: Yash Chopra passed away on October 21, 2012 after a sudden  illness. In memory of this legendary figure, I've written a post on Six favorite songs from Yash Chopra films.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

I can't believe it's taken me so long to discover the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis. His Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (originally published 1881; translated by Gregory Rabassa, Oxford University Press, 1997) is, as the title suggests, narrated by a dead man--the very first chapter is titled "The Author's Demise."

Brás Cubas's narrative voice is lightly ironic, a quality that I enjoy in writers as different as Jane Austen, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. Brás Cubas is skeptical and self-deprecating, as well--pointing out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures unsparingly.

But the novel also illustrates the limitations of approaching life ironically. While passion and commitment are shown to be absurd--delusional when not hypocritical--the alternative is a life of detached bemusement. Brás Cubas's litany of missed opportunities, bypassed possibilities, and half-hearted pursuits eventually becomes rather sad. He's not the first person who when at college is "a profligate, superficial, riotous and petulant student," and afterwards desires nothing more than "to prolong the university for my whole life forward..." As much to give his life some drama as out of true feeling, he ultimately embarks on a long-term affair with Virgília, the wife of an opportunistic politician; the affair doesn't end particularly well.

Like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the Posthumous Memoirs calls attention to its own constructedness as literature--the narrator refers to previous events in his life by chapter number, for example, or engages in self-conscious typographical experiments. Chapter CXXXIX, "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," for example, consists entirely of a lengthy ellipsis. The next chapter--titled "Which Explains the Previous One"--begins, "There are things that are better said in silence. Such is the material of the previous chapter."

But apart from his wit, what makes Brás Cubas such an enjoyable companion is his unflattering honesty about himself and his motives--greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar.

"Perhaps I'm startling the reader with the frankness with which I'm emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man. In life the gaze of public opinion, the contrast of interests, the struggle of greed all oblige people to keep quiet about their dirty linen, to disguise the rips and stitches, not to extend to the world the revelations they make to their conscience. And the best part of the obligation comes when, by deceiving others, a man deceives himself, because in such a case he saves himself vexation, which is a painful feeling, and hypocrisy, which is a vile vice."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor

At many points during San Francisco Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (seen July 2), it was hard to escape the impression that the singing was better than the music.

Lucia is based on Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor (despite the Scottish setting, the characters' forenames have been Italianized). Lucia is forced to renounce her true love, Edgardo, and marry Arturo, a man she has barely met, to save the fortunes of her brother Enrico. Madness and death follow.

Soprano Natalie Dessay (photo by Terrence McCarthy) deserves every superlative that's been showered on her Lucia. While she possesses the effortless-sounding coloratura demanded by this difficult role, she is also a skilled actress who fully inhabits her character. The famous mad scene in the middle of the third act, where a dazed Lucia wanders into her wedding party drenched in Arturo's blood and hallucinating that she is marrying Edgardo, was brilliantly performed (and I don't even like coloratura).

As her lover Edgardo, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti's voice sounded somewhat dry and strained in Act I, but gradually opened up over the course of the evening. He gave an emotionally compelling account of the final scene, where Edgardo at Lucia's tomb realizes the full horror of what's transpired and resolves to die with her. Baritone Gabriele Viviani sang Enrico with a convincing sense of menace and heedlessness of his sister's desires. As the sympathetic chaplain Raimondo, bass Oren Gradus possessed the most commanding male voice (and the most nuanced male character) onstage. Andrew Bidlack essayed the thankless role of Arturo with a high tenor voice that was perhaps on the light side (am I the only person who feels some sympathy for the luckless Arturo, slaughtered on his wedding night?).

But for me, these excellent voices were too often employed in the service of music that was incongruously mismatched with the dramatic situation. This was especially apparent in the second-act sextet (mainly a trio) that follows Lucia's signing of the marriage contract with Arturo. An armed Edgardo bursts in (never mind how) and expresses defiant rage, while Enrico feels the stirrings of remorse, and Lucia is utterly devastated. But Donizetti's melodies for this scene bear little relation to the content of the words; you could substitute entirely different texts about the beautiful spring breezes, and the trio would work perfectly well. This incongruity can be used once or twice as a deliberate effect; when it happens throughout the opera, you can't avoid the suspicion that it's not a device, but a failing.

San Francisco Opera did use a recent critical edition of the score, which apparently involved somewhat more transparent orchestration and the use, as Donizetti originally intended, of an eerie-sounding glass harmonica during Lucia's mad scene (you can approximate the effect by rubbing a wetted finger around the rim of a wine glass). Alas, the care taken with the score was not extended to the sets, which used painted panels to try to generate a sense of oppressiveness and enclosure, but mainly just looked cheap. From the first scene, the panels also forced the performers into awkward accommodations, as when the chorus representing Enrico's clansmen has to duck under an all-too-solid panel representing the mist on the moors.

Fortunately the production did not detract from Dessay's amazing performance. Here's a short excerpt of her mad scene from the Metropolitan Opera's Lucia from last fall. The production is entirely different from San Francisco's, but it will give a small hint of what it's like to experience her performance in the theater:



For another, more eloquent appreciation of Natalie Dessay's Lucia, see Prima la musica, poi le parole.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vivah and Aaja Nachle

Adam Gopnik has an article in the current New Yorker on the writer G. K. Chesterton. In it he quotes a chapter in Chesterton's autobiography titled "The Man With The Golden Key," in which Chesterton describes how as a child he played with figures (including a prince who carried a golden key) in a puppet theater:

"If this were a ruthless realistic modern story, I should of course give a most heartrending account of how my spirit was broken with disappointment, on discovering that the prince was only a painted figure. But this is not a ruthless realistic modern story. On the contrary, it is a true story. And the truth is that I do not remember that I was in any way deceived or in any way undeceived. The whole point is that I did like the toy theatre even when I knew it was a toy theatre. I did like the cardboard figures, even when I found they were of cardboard. The white light of wonder that shone on the whole business was not any sort of trick..."
Fantasy and reality are not opposed to or exclusive of one another, but can coexist simultaneously. And surely this is the way that our imaginations are engaged by books, opera, and movies, among other things. In the spirit of being neither deceived nor undeceived, then, my appreciation of two recent Bollywood films that involve no more reality than Chesterton's toy theater, but nonetheless offer a high degree of enjoyment:

Porn for parents: Vivah (2006)

There's a book called Porn for Women (Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative, 2007) which consists of pictures of hunky guys vacuuming, doing the dishes, and offering thick slices of chocolate cake for dessert, with captions like "I don't like to see you looking too thin."

Well, Vivah (Marriage) is pornography for parents. Director Sooraj Barjatya (of Hum Aapke Hain Kaun...! (1994) fame) has created a world where children are obedient, kind, sweet-tempered, solicitous of their parents and siblings, and unfailingly courteous. If they're beautiful young women, they're modest and demure; if they're charming young men, they're shy and reject all vices. Loving parents arrange marriages for their children that lead to deeply affectionate unions and emotionally close extended families where class and caste differences don't matter.

This is not to say that none of this is ever true. For all of it to be true simultaneously, though, we have to be in Barjatyaland.

Vivah is the story of an arranged union between Poonam (Amrita Rao), a small town, middle-class family's gorgeous niece raised as their own daughter, and Prem (Shahid Kapoor), the handsome second son of a fabulously wealthy Dehli industrialist. Amrita and Shahid are very appealing as the young lovers, even if Shahid has a hard time being convincing in those rare moments when he's called on to look sultry. The supporting cast--including Alok Nath and Anupam Kher as Poonam's and Prem's respective fathers and Lata Sabharwal as Prem's sister-in-law--inhabit their roles with a charming ease. And not least, Ravindra Jain's soundtrack has the great Udit Narayan and the brilliantly talented Shreya Ghoshal all over it.

It's the kind of movie where, when discussing their past love affairs, Poonam's had none, and Prem mentions that he once had a crush on a girl sitting in front of him in one of his college classes. Then he discovered that she already had two boyfriends, and lost interest. Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the "journey from engagement to marriage" of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it.

Madhuri Dixit's return: Aaja Nachle (2007)

Aaja Nachle (Come Dance With Me) is a classic "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" musical. Its main feature of interest is that it's the vehicle for the return of Madhuri Dixit to Bollywood after an absence of 5 years (it's her first film since Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas (2002)).

Although she looks great in Aaja Nachle, it's clear in some sequences at least that Madhuri is no longer in top dancing form. Very often she will remain more or less stationary in the center of groups of dancers who swirl around her. It's impossible to escape the feeling that this is intended by director Anil Mehta and choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant to disguise her relative lack of mobility. Still, she remains very expressive as both an actor and dancer, and is always a pleasure to watch.

She plays Dia, a woman who left her village to avoid an arranged marriage, and ran off with her lover to New York to realize her dreams as a dancer. A decade later, divorced and with a young daughter, she returns to the village at the request of her dying teacher. The Ajanta amphitheater will be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall unless she can rally the townspeople to save it. So she recruits a motley assortment of townfolk to perform the ancient love story of Laila and Majnu.

Will Dia be able to whip her fractious cast into a smooth ensemble by opening night? Will sophisticated lighting effects, elaborate sets and costumes, and dozens of backup dancers materialize from nowhere? Will the actors playing Laila and Majnu stop arguing constantly and fall in love offstage as well as on-? Will the evil politicians and businessmen who have forgotten art and their heritage in pursuit of money see the error of their ways? Will dissatisfied wives and husbands, astonished at seeing their partners' onstage transformations, suddenly come to appreciate them? Will the theater be saved...?

If you're unsure about how the movie turns out, you haven't watched 42nd Street (1933) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or Babes in Arms (1939) or Singin' in the Rain (1952) or The Band Wagon (1953) or...I'm sure you catch my drift. But the film is enlivened by Akshaye Khanna's delightful performance as a pro-development politician (he actually says to Dia, "I'm the bad guy"), a terrific ensemble cast, and of course, by Madhuri Dixit's lovely smile--missing from the screen for too long.

Aaja Nachle is not a great work of art. It's clichéd, suspenseless, totally unreal and utterly predictable.

I loved it.

Update 10 July 2011: After rewatching Vivah, I've posted additional thoughts about it in Bollywood Rewatch 2: Vivah and India's missing daughters.