Friday, November 27, 2009

Favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s

In response to theBollywoodFan's list of his favorite films of the 2000s, I offer my own selections for the past decade.

Five favorite Bollywood films, plus one ringer (in chronological order, and yes, five out of the six feature Shah Rukh Khan):

Devdas (2002): Sanjay Leela Bhansali's retelling of the tragic loves of Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan), his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) and the courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) is one of the most sumptuous movies ever filmed. Madhuri Dixit's dances are highlights, but all of the songs are integrated into the story with unusual care.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003): Three friends (SRK, Saif Ali Khan, and Preity Zinta) learn about laughter, life and love in modern-day New York--but one of them is concealing a tragic secret. Karan Johar's tightly structured script, director Nikhil Advani's razor-sharp direction and the excellent performances of the cast are what made this the film that hooked us on Bollywood.

Veer-Zaara (2004): Veer, an Indian man (SRK) and Zaara, a Pakistani woman (Preity Zinta) meet and fall in love, but are separated for years by the political divisions between their countries. The lush, evocative score by the late Madan Mohan perfectly matches the sweeping emotions of Yash Chopra's love story.

Water (2005): The ringer, since this isn't really a Bollywood (or even Indian) film. But director/writer Deepa Mehta's story of an impossible love between a student (John Abraham) and a young widow (Lisa Ray) in pre-independence India is highly compelling, and both principals offer excellent performances.

Paheli (2005): A feminist retelling of a puppet-theater folk tale in which a neglected wife (Rani Mukherjee) finds emotional and erotic fulfillment with a spirit who takes the form of her absent husband (SRK). So gorgeously shot by director Amol Palekar and cinematographer Ravi Chandran that we forgive them for Shah Rukh's unflattering moustache.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006): A brave experiment, in which director/writer Karan Johar tells the story of the disintegration of two mismatched couples (SRK & Preity, Abhishek Bachchan & Rani). No heroes and no villains, just complex, largely believable characters caught up in an emotional maelstrom. Abhishek's best performance to date, I think.

Six films that were worthy contenders for the favorites list, plus one ringer:

Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000): It's a Tamil rather than Bollywood movie, I know, but I wanted to include this contemporary version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility because it's so charming. A great story (of course) and wonderful performances by Aishwarya Rai and Tabu as the Marianne and Elinor characters.

Dil Chahta Hai (2001): The story of three young men (Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan) and their romantic involvements with three women (Dimple Kapadia, Sonali Kulkarni and Preity Zinta), this film was a major milestone for its youthful director/writer Farhan Akhtar and for many of its cast members.

Hum Tum (2004): Great chemistry in this romantic comedy between Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee. Unfortunately, the success of this one gave us the inferior Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007) and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008) (both on the List of Shame below).

Swades (2004): SRK is a NASA engineer who returns to India to bring his ayah back to the States, only to get caught up in trying to solve the problems besetting her village. Whatever happened to the lovely Gayatri Joshi, SRK's love interest in this one?

Black (2005): Yes, it's a remake of The Miracle Worker (1962), but when Amitabh Bachchan as the teacher and Rani as his reluctant student do such fine work, what does it matter?

Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006): The charming story of a gangster boss (Sanjay Dutt at his most appealing) who holds imaginary conversations with Gandhi, takes a vow of nonviolence and, together with his uncomprehending sidekick Circuit (Arshad Warshi), stands up for the residents of an old-age home. A prime candidate for an introductory film for Bollywood neophytes.

Om Shanti Om (2007): SRK and the appealing Ritesh Deshmukh Shreyas Talpade are especially good in the first half as scrounging "junior artistes" in 1970s Bollywood. The modern-day second half with SRK doing a self-parody as the superstar Om Kapoor doesn't hold up quite as well, but the film is an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek valentine to past and present Bollywood.

Seven films for which I have an inexplicable affection, even though they're all flawed in various ways:

Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002): In many ways this isn't a very good film--but the performances by Preity Zinta as an illegitimate daughter and by Rekha as her embittered stepmother make it compelling anyway. If you can stop watching during the final hour, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Munna Bhai MBBS (2003): Sanjay Dutt's second outing as the good-hearted gangster Munna finds the big galoot attending medical school. Some of the humor is predictable or strained, but Sanjay's a delight throughout.

Koi..Mil Gaya (2003): Affecting performances by Hrithik Roshan and the ever-lovely Preity Zinta make this remake of E.T. (1982) surprisingly endearing.

Chori Chori (2003): Add this one to the growing "actors transcending their material" pile. Rani is adorable as Khushi, a woman who is scamming her way through life when she encounters Ranbir (Ajay Devgan), an architect who is stalled both professionally and personally. Of course, we know where this is going long before the characters do, but it's still enjoyable to watch Rani get there.

Vivah (2006): Yes, director Sooraj Barjatya's story of the "journey from engagement to marriage" of the young, beautiful and well-to-do Prem (Shahid Kapoor) and Poonam (Amrita Rao) is lovely, but slow-moving and sentimental. And your point is...?

Aaja Nachle (2007): Madhuri Dixit's return to Bollywood, if not quite to Devdas-level dancing form, transcends its "let's put on a show" formula thanks to her engaging performance.

Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008): OK, the premise stretches credulity past the breaking point. But SRK's performance in a dual role (especially as the introverted Suri) is delightful, and the number "Phir Milenge" brilliantly pays homage to Bollywood's Golden and Silver Ages.

Finally, ten movies that range from disappointing to flat-out awful (you get to decide which movie falls under which category):

Kaho Naa...Pyar Hai (2000)
Yaadein (2001)
Shakti: The Power (2002)
Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003)
Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007)
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007)
Saawariya (2007) (Rani's sequences excepted)
Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008)
U Me aur Hum (2008)
Chandni Chowk to China (2009)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Busby Berkeley

In the early 1930s the director and choreographer* Busby Berkeley created a new form of film musical. Berkeley designed and directed elaborate production numbers featuring armies of chorus girls moving in geometrically precise arrangements. The production numbers in previous musical films had generally been shot from static positions in front of the proscenium--a theater audience's point of view. Berkeley's innovation was to make the camera a part of the choreography by placing it directly overhead, on the chorus line, or even tracking between the dancers' legs onstage.

We've recently been watching several of Berkeley's early musicals for Warner Brothers, and I thought I'd offer a quick survey. I realize that calling these movies "Busby Berkeley musicals" neglects the contributions of directors like Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn LeRoy, who were often in charge of the dialogue scenes. But with all due respect to Bacon and LeRoy, it's the Berkeley-directed dance numbers that make these movies unforgettable. So, in descending order of watchability:

1. Gold Diggers of 1933 is Berkeley's masterpiece, containing some of his most jaw-droppingly enjoyable numbers. Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and comedienne Aline MacMahon play wisecracking but good-hearted chorus girls (a setup so successful it was recycled a few years later in the excellent Stage Door (1937), also starring Ginger Rogers). Ruby Keeler is (what else) the ingenue, and her love interest Dick Powell is a rich kid slumming it as a Broadway songwriter. But all you need to know is that the screenplay provides enough snappy dialogue and comic situations to keep you thoroughly entertained between numbers.



And what numbers! From the opening "We're in the Money" (featuring chorus girls clothed in coins and Ginger Rogers singing the lyrics in pig latin) to the "Shadow Waltz" (with dozens of dancers playing neon-lit violins), Berkeley's stagings of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs are mind-boggling. My favorite may be the delirious "Pettin' in the Park," which says more about the sexual mores of my grandparents' generation than I really want to know:



The movie closes with "Remember My Forgotten Man," a harrowing song about the mistreatment and neglect of World War I veterans, unforgettably performed by Joan Blondell and Etta Motten. Don't miss this one.

2. 42nd Street (1933) became the template for every backstage musical to follow: when a Broadway show's star (Bebe Daniels) breaks her ankle just before opening night, the ingenue chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to go on as her replacement. The movie has Harry Warren and Al Dubin's great title song about that "naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty" (or as Ruby Keeler sings, "spawty") thoroughfare, and the classic line delivered to Peggy by the harried director (Warner Baxter) just before she steps onstage: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

It also has Ruby Keeler's first and worst film performance. Her line readings are stiff and unconvincing, and worse, her dancing is ungainly and looks like the hard work it must actually be. When she launches into her clomping tap-dance* break during the climactic version of the title song, the tempo of the music audibly slows down instead of speeding up.

Throughout the film Keeler has a stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look. Perhaps she herself realized the ludicrousness of the scene in which another chorus girl gives up her chance to take over the leading role in favor of Keeler. That other chorus girl, who in fact handles the snappy dialogue and the jazzy choreography much more smoothly than Keeler, is played by Fred Astaire's future partner Ginger Rogers. Nah--she could never carry the show...

3. Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney burns up the screen in an intense performance as the harried director of spectacular live "prologues" supposedly put on before movie screenings (sure--if the movie theater is the size of an airplane hanger and the exhibitor has an unlimited budget). To win a contract he's got to stage three prologues on one night in three different theaters--and he's only got a single weekend to prepare everything.

But you can forget (or enjoy) the multiple implausibilities when the movie includes Cagney, the great Joan Blondell, and one of the most absurdly spectacular numbers Berkeley ever filmed, the "water ballet" "By A Waterfall."

The inevitable Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are also in the cast, with Keeler giving one of her better performances as a secretary who steps onstage and becomes a star. Just don't think too hard about the racial politics of the final number, "Shanghai Lil" (in which Cagney shows that he can sing and tap-dance a little, too).

4. Gold Diggers of 1935: Lightning does not strike twice; this sequel-in-name-only to Gold Diggers of 1933 testifies to the (temporary) exhaustion of the Berkeley formula--or perhaps, after his grueling work schedule of the previous three years, to Berkeley's own exhaustion. This time, instead of playing a gee-whiz kid, Powell plays a cynical and jaded gold digger himself. The plot centers on the creation of a charity stage show which is so spectacularly lavish that it loses tens of thousands of dollars.

The two main production numbers, to the Warren-Dubin songs "The Words Are In My Heart" and "The Lullaby of Broadway," only partly compensate for the unsatisfying plot. The opening and final images of "Lullaby" are a direct homage to the photographs of Man Ray, suggesting that Berkeley's surrealism was highly self-conscious. And talk about surrealism: the "Lullaby" number is staged as a bizarre morality play which ends with the Broadway Baby (Wini Shaw) falling to her death from a skyscraper--an eerie anticipation of the suicide of Dorothy Hale, immortalized in Frida Kahlo's famous painting. A strange coda to an oddly dark film:



(This is only the second half of this number; part one is also available on YouTube.)

* see Jeffrey Spivak's comments below.

Update 6 Feb 2011: Jeffrey Spivak's Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley has been published by the University Press of Kentucky. Thanks again to Jeff for his detailed comments below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Azhagi

The Tamil-language film Azhagi (2002) was adapted by acclaimed cinematographer Thankar Bachan from his own short story "Kalvettu." Perhaps Bachan was too close to the material, because to me it felt that as a writer and director he sometimes got in the way of his excellent cast. The film is compelling, but some miscalculations and inconsistencies make it less powerful than it might have been. (Image from thankarbachan.com.)

As schoolchildren, Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi are friends and allies against the cruelties of adults and other children; and as they grow older, they begin to feel the stirrings of an unspoken love. But they are separated when Dhanalakshmi is forced to marry her abusive, alcoholic brother-in-law, while Shanmugam goes off to veterinary college.

Years later Shanmugam (Parthiban) accidentally encounters the widowed Dhanalakshmi (the always superb Nandita Das) and her young son, now impoverished and living on the streets. He decides to bring them home and give Dhanalakshmi a job as a household servant to help his wife Valarmati (Devayani) with their two children.

But no good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and Dhanalakshmi's presence in Shanmugam's household is soon exciting nasty insinuations from the townspeople and inflaming suspicions in his wife. And her suspicions aren't entirely unjustified. It's clear that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi's powerful feelings for one another haven't been extinguished, although--with mixed success--they both try to avoid overstepping the bounds of their new relationship. Shanmugam's mother-in-law is outraged by what she sees as Dhanalakshmi's too-familiar manner, while his wife Valarmarti's initial sympathy begins to wear thin as her awareness of her husband's past (and present) emotional connection to the beautiful Dhanalakshmi grows.

The cast is uniformly excellent, including the child actors who play Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi at various stages of childhood and adolescence (the credits are in Tamil only, so I couldn't identify who they are). Nandita Das' performance as the adult Dhanalakshmi is especially affecting. And the wistful songs by Ilaiyaraaja enhance the melancholy mood. All of these elements come together at the moment that Shanmugam and Dhanalakshmi first encounter one another again in "Un Kuthama" (vocals by Ilaiyaraaja):


But unfortunately Azhagi also includes supposedly comic episodes (featuring the petty corruption of Shanmugam's colleagues) which for me only served to disrupt the delicately established mood. There's also a gratuitous and implausible fight scene where Shanmugam defends Dhanalakshmi's honor (and his own) against a group of insulting men. Bachan may have felt that he had to include these masala elements in order to insure the film's commercial success, but for me they were jarring interruptions that seemed to belong to another film entirely.

At least the comedy and fight scenes can be hastened through using the fast-forward button. More problematic is the character of Valarmati, who swings wildly between the extremes of sympathetic understanding and bitter anger. Bachan needed to add a bit more nuance to her character, although the lovely Devayani does what she can to make Valarmati's reactions seem credible.

I've got a major weakness for stories of impossible loves: characters whose yearning for one another is so held in check by social convention and by their concern for hurting others that they can never bring themselves to act on their feelings. If you share my susceptibility to stories of thwarted passion (or my admiration for Nandita Das) you'll find a good deal to enjoy in Azhagi, despite its flaws.