Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bachna Ae Haseeno

Bachna Ae Haseeno (Beware, Beauties; 2008) is an enjoyable time-pass, as they say, but it could have been more. The premise--a man seeking out past girlfriends in order to apologize for his caddish behavior--seems promising. Alas, somewhere between Aditya Chopra's story and the realization of the film, something goes amiss.

(As an aside, the title of the film is taken from an R. D. Burman song for the film Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977), which starred Rishi Kapoor--father of Ranbir Kapoor, the male lead in Bachna Ae Haseeno. Ah, Bollywood...)

Warning: some spoilers follow.

We see Raj (Ranbir Kapoor in a far more assured and enjoyable performance than in his debut Sawaariya (2007)) romancing three women at different stages of his life. First there's the naïve Mahi (convincingly played by Minissha Lamba), whom he meets during a pre-college Eurail tour. The parallels to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)--coincidentally written and directed by Aditya Chopra--are underlined explicitly (not to say relentlessly). Like DDLJ's Simran (Kajol), Mahi dreams of being swept off her feet by an irresistible romance, but in reality will be returning to India for an arranged marriage. Unlike DDLJ's Raj (Shah Rukh Khan), though, Raj doesn't follow her. Instead he brags to his buddies about how far he's gotten with Mahi during the 24 hours they spent together after missing the train. Mahi overhears his boasting, and her dreams of romance are shattered.

Six years later, Raj is in his mid-twenties and is living in Mumbai with aspiring model Radikha (Bipasha Basu; I've never been Bipasha's biggest fan, but she does a creditable job here). When Raj and his game-design partner Sachin (Hiten Paintal) win a coveted posting to Sydney, Radhika plans for a wedding on the eve of what she assumes will be her departure with Raj. But Raj, panicking at the thought of commitment, lies to her about when he's leaving. Radhika is left waiting at the altar as Raj and Sachin jet off to Sydney.

Six years after that, Raj--now the thirtyish head of a highly successful game-design team--has obviously been enjoying the hedonistic nightlife of Sydney to the hilt. But then a late-night encounter with gorgeous taxi driver/convenience-store clerk/MBA student Gayatri (the stunning Deepika Padukone) has Raj suddenly rethinking his aversion to commitment. Gayatri, though, is a smart and determinedly independent woman who isn't ready for marriage and refuses to be kept by Raj. It's refreshing to see a female character in a Bollywood film for whom marriage isn't the supreme goal, and who can go to bed with a man she's attracted to without getting punished by the screenwriters.

Instead, it's Raj who is hurt when he unwisely decides to push the marriage issue, and gets a bitter taste of his own medicine. He then decides that he has to make amends to Mahi and Radhika for his past cruelties. He's in for some surprises, though...

On the plus side, the actors are all appealing, the locations (Switzerland, Bombay/Mumbai, Sydney, Italy, Thailand and Amritsar) are beautifully shot by director Siddharth Anand, and Vishal-Shekar's music (apart from the wretched English-language rock soundtrack that crops up repeatedly in Sydney) is catchy, especially Raj and Gayatri's "Khuda Jaane" (sung by Krishna Kumar Kunnath and Shilpa Rao):

But the Curse of the Second Half strikes Bachna Ae Haseeno in a major way. Disbelief has to be suspended past the breaking point, odd compressions and expansions of time occur (when Raj returns to India to find Mahi and Radhika, reference is made to a "4 days/3 nights" package; it turns out later that he's been gone a full year!), and there are multiple undermotivated reversals.

Despite the increasingly unconvincing script in the second half, Bachna Ae Haseeno is worth watching for the performances, especially those of Deepika, Minissha and Ranbir, and for the eye-candy. Beyond that, keep your expectations in check.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chashme Buddoor

Thanks to Memsaab's rave review we watched Chashme Buddoor (1981) the other night, and it's every bit as delightful as she makes it seem.

Chashme Buddoor (a loose translation might be "Knock on Wood") is a bit like a comic La Bohème. It's the story of three roommates and their attempts to woo the girl next door, Neha (the terrific Deepti Naval). There's the poet Omi (Rakesh Bedi), the would-be actor Jai (Ravi Baswani), and Siddharth (Farooq Shaikh), a bookish economics graduate student. They share a cramped flat, and are constantly in hock to the local paan-walla, cigarette and soda vendor Lalan Mian (Saeed Jaffrey). Both Omi and Jai go to Neha's house to try to impress her; both fail miserably, but return to their buddies with elaborate stories about how successful they were. Finally, Siddharth is home one afternoon when Neha comes to his door--she's doing laundry-detergent demonstrations, and only needs to do one more to fill her quota. Over the suds, they begin a shy courtship, which eventually blossoms into love.

Chashme Buddoor is full of moments that gently mock filmi conventions. When Siddharth and Neha are sitting together in the park, she points out that they should be doing a song-and-dance number. Then, glancing around at all the couples and families that surround them, she wonders how it is that in movies when the hero and heroine dance in the park it's completely empty. Yes, Siddarth muses--and where do they hide the 40-piece orchestra? In another scene, the couple is sitting in their favorite cafe, and ask the waiter for another round (Tutti Frutti ice cream for her, coffee for him)--but, Siddharth tells him as they linger together, please take your time. Fine, the waiter replies--I'll bring it after the interval (which then arrives on cue).

The humor mainly depends on the observation of telling details rather than slapstick, and there's a hilarious montage of great movie love songs restaged as Jai's fantasy date with Neha. One key factor in the film's success is that all of the actors are perfectly matched to their roles. The boys aren't chiseled gym bunnies, and Neha, though lovely, isn't a Miss World contestant inexplicably parachuted into a typical Dehli neighborhood. I'm curious now in particular about Deepti Naval and Farooq Shaikh--I'll have to explore a bit more of their filmographies.

The course of true love never runs smooth, and for their own selfish reasons Omi and Jai decide that they have to break up the couple. There are some lapses in narrative logic, and in the last 20 minutes the director/writer Sai Paranjape abandons his her filmi satire and stages an almost conventional masala climax. But by then Chashme Buddoor has built up so much good will that it's easy to forgive this minor lapse (and don't stop watching before the credits roll.)

You don't have to take my word for how enjoyable this movie is, though. If you haven't seen it I urge you to read the reviews of Memsaab and Beth (which I discovered as I was writing this), and then run out to rent the movie. You'll be utterly charmed.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Based on the story of writer Khalid Mohamed's own mother, Zubeidaa (2001) tells of her unhappy life and untimely death in the early years of India's independence. Zubeidaa's story is framed by the attempts of her adult son Riyaz (Rajit Kapoor) to investigate decades later the life of the mother he barely knew.

Warning: spoilers follow.

Zubeidaa (Karisma Kapoor in an excellent performance) is buffeted by forces she doesn't understand and can't control. First her traditionalist Muslim father (Amrish Puri), himself a filmmaker, forces her to give up her aspirations to be a movie actress and marries her off unwillingly to the son of a family friend. The marriage scene, where a grimly silent Zubeidaa refuses to give her assent and her father speaks for her, shows that even the possibility of defiance is denied to her.

A year later, Zubeidaa's husband is convinced to divorce her and return to Pakistan with his father (the authority of fathers can't be contested even by their sons, it seems). Zubeidaa is left with a baby boy and the stigma of being a divorced mother. But to her parents' dismay, she isn't content to spend the rest of her life sequestered at home. At a polo match she meets Maharaja Vijayendra "Victor" Singh (Manoj Bajpai), who after the proverbial whirlwind courtship takes her to Fatehpur to be his second wife. Zubeidaa's short-lived joy is dashed, though, when her father insists on keeping her son, despite Victor's assurances that Riyaz can be raised as a Muslim.

Zubeidaa's romantic fantasies soon collide with the realities of Victor's relationship to his first wife, the Maharani Mandira Devi (Rehka), who is Hindu and the mother of his sons. Zubeidaa chafes under the precedence Mandira must be given and the time that Victor must spend with her. And when Victor decides to contest the provincial elections, he tours the villages with his Hindu consort, and not his Muslim wife.

The film touches on many issues: women's lack of freedom, the wounds of Partition, the second-class status of Muslims in a Hindu-dominated society, the attempt by the post-Partition Indian government to disempower the hereditary ruling classes, the conflict between the traditional and the new. The treatment of these issues by Mohamed and director Shyam Benegal is unusually subtle; there are no heroes, villains, or melodrama, only ordinary people acting out of comprehensible, if sometimes hypocritical or cruel, motives.

Much credit is due to Mohamed, Benegal and the actors for the many telling moments in the film. When Zubeidaa and the Maharani first meet, Mandira criticizes Zubeidaa's sleeveless choli; it's clear to us and to Zubeidaa that although Mandira reluctantly accepts Zubeidaa's presence, she's jealous of her place in Victor's affections. Yet, the next time we see Zubeidaa she has silently changed into a more demure style--her begrudging concession to Mandira's authority within the household. Later, when an angry Zubeidaa creates a scene at the airport by insisting on being taken on what turns out to be a fatal plane flight in place of the Maharani, Mandira's shame and humiliation are expressed in a single lowered glance at those gathered to see them off. The nuanced acting and directing are matched by A. R. Rahman's typically superb score.

The problem with Zubeidaa is its heroine. While her unwillingness to be limited to her traditional roles gains our full sympathy, that sympathy is slowly eroded by her displays of willfulness, childishness and petulance throughout the film. Her rebellion remains little more than simmering resentment that occasionally explodes into fits of pique. In fact, it's suggested that she may have deliberately caused the plane crash that took her life and that of her husband, a suspicion only partly dispelled in the film's final moments. We wait in vain for Zubeidaa to recognize that anything other than getting her own way might be at stake--to grow up, to put it bluntly. She is ultimately a victim not only of a patriarchal society, but of her own self-centeredness.

And so despite the many pleasures that this intelligent and well-acted film offers, Zubeidaa's limitations make Zubeidaa ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Still, it is very much worth seeing, and makes me curious about the two other semi-autobiographical films on which Mohamed and Benegal collaborated, Mammo (1994) and Sardari Begum (1996).