Friday, April 30, 2010

Love Aaj Kal

Love Aaj Kal (Love These Days, 2009) has appealing actors (Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone, Rishi Kapoor in his avuncular uncle mode) and spectacular locations: London, Delhi, Kolkata, San Francisco. It does, though, have a few minor flaws: the direction, the editing, and the story.

First, a brief synopsis: Jai (Saif) and Meera (Deepika) are desis living in London who hook up after a night of clubbing and soon move in with one another. Both are apparently skeptical of deeper emotional commitment, though--Jai openly ridicules the idea--and when a couple of years later Meera gets her dream job restoring temple paintings in India, the couple agree to break up with no hard feelings. Jai's friend Veer (Rishi), an older man who runs a London cafe, can't believe that Jai is so willing to let Meera go, and tells Jai the story of his love for a young woman named Harleen (Giselli Monteiro) in the India of a generation ago. The two stories intertwine, with modern mores--the ease of sex and the difficulties of commitment--contrasting with those in Veer's time.

But the multiple flashbacks and shifts in location are presented confusingly by director Imtiaz Ali. (I don't think it's me: I had no difficulty following the multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards in Shyam Benegal's masterful Bhumika, (1976), for example). It doesn't help that Saif plays a double role (as Jai and the young Veer) while Deepika doesn't. In an apparent attempt to help us out by signalling the time-shifts, some of the scenes from Veer story are given a sepia tone. Thinking about the chronology, though, the Veer-Harleen story must be taking place in the mid-70s; somehow I don't think of the 70s as being a particularly sepia decade. Even granting this choice, it's applied inconsistently, sometimes leaving us floundering for a few moments before we're sure of where and when the scene is supposed to be taking place.

This is true even in the present-day sections. There's a moment in the script when Meera talks about her imminent trip to India, while Jai mentions his desire to go to San Francisco. The next shot is from the point of view of a car driving down an urban street. Are we in Delhi? San Francisco? No--we're still in London, as it takes us a few seconds to realize. The movie is filled with moments like this--either an expected jump in time or location that doesn't happen, or an unprepared cut that vaults us to a different time and/or place without our realizing it at first. I don't remember Ali's Jab We Met (2007) having this problem. That was a more linear story, though; the task of keeping Love Aaj Kal's intertwined narrative threads from getting tangled seems to have defeated him.

As writer and director, Ali has to take the blame for this, but it's also true that Aarti Bajaj's editing is at times simply incompetent. There's a scene where we see Meera dancing with her new boyfriend Vikram (Rahul Khanna). The camera is placed behind Vikram, shooting over his shoulder at Meera's smiling face. The very next shot is of Vikram walking towards the camera carrying a couple of drinks. By the conventions of continuity editing, it appears that he is walking towards himself. This is the sort of mistake that shouldn't happen in a student film, much less a slick commercial product like this one.

And how hard can it be to make Deepika Padukone look good? Too hard for the three credited costumers, apparently--Deepika keeps winding up in unflattering, cheap-looking outfits.

But Deepika's dumpy clothes, the confusing direction and poor editing would be insignificant if the story were compelling, or even made sense. Spoilers follow: Jai and Meera live together for three years, but never have The Talk about commitment? (At least an unmarried couple living together is treated in a matter-of-fact way: no one has to get pregnant, commit suicide or contract a terminal disease.) Meera doesn't realize until the morning after her wedding to another man that she's still in love with Jai? She then does nothing about this realization except disappear into her work? Jai doesn't realize until he's beaten up in San Francisco a year later that he loves Meera? And this is supposed to be a great love story? Sorry--love overcoming obstacles is indeed a classic story line, but the obstacles have to be something other than the couple's willful disconnection from their own feelings.

--End of spoilers--

Love Aaj Kal was a big hit, so apparently it struck a chord with many viewers. And it's not a total loss. Saif and Deepika acquit themselves honorably even if their characters are seriously underwritten (this is getting to be a problem for Deepika--see also Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008)). If the present-day story is nonsensical, the Veer-Harleen story is charming, as is its narrator Rishi (and it culminates in the brief onscreen reunion of a famous jodi).

The Veer-Harleen story also gives us the one compelling song in the movie, "Thoda Thoda Pyar" (music by Pritam, lyrics by Irshad Kamil). Harleen, dancing at an engagement party, sings about the pesky boy who keeps pursuing her, simultaneously signaling to him that "a little bit of love" for him has entered her heart. It's the sort of clever, charming and multilayered scene that Love Aaj Kal could have used a lot more of:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bhumika

Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (The Role, 1977), like his later Zubeidaa (2001), is about the plight of women in a society where men wield all the power.

Usha is the only child of an impoverished couple. Her father lies in bed unable to work, and so the burden of supporting the family falls on Usha's mother Shanta (Sulabha Deshpande), who is trapped in an unhappy and abusive marriage. Usha's grandmother, a singer, nourishes the growing talents of the young girl, and she is spotted by her predatory neighbor Keshav (Amol Palekar), who has connections in the film industry.

After an audition with a producer, the precocious Usha is indeed hired as a playback singer; some years later, as a young woman (now played by Smita Patil), she becomes a actress. Happiness remains elusive, though--not only do we see the hard, repetitive work involved in filming, we see Usha engaging in a series of troubled relationships with men. Each new relationship holds out the promise of love and freedom, only to wind up in disappointment, bitterness, and confinement (either figurative or literal). Usha can seemingly never escape the roles that others define for her.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Scenes in the movie's present are in color, while the flashbacks are in black and white. Apart from the film stock and the aging of the characters, we are given cues to the passage of time in occasional snatches of news on the radio, which place the action between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. But the momentous historical events that we hear announced in the background have no direct impact on the lives of the characters; one of the flash-forwards skips right over the moment of India's independence, for example. Instead the focus of the film remains--like its heroine--claustrophobically confined.

Smita Patil gives an extraordinary performance as Usha, who (like Zubeidaa) is far from a perfect heroine: she is thoughtless at times, makes poor choices (from, of course, very limited alternatives), and ultimately abandons her daughter to her parasitic, resentful husband. But throughout Patil makes Usha sympathetic in her pain, anger and confusion. She eloquently expresses the toll exacted by Usha's unfulfilled desires for freedom and for true companionship. Patil is very ably supported by Deshpande, Palekar, and by the actors playing the men with whom she has her unhappy affairs: Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri.

Other striking aspects of Bhumika are Benegal's beautifully composed images (and adept suggestion of vintage Bollywood style) and Vanraj Bhatia's music. The music is so good that it makes me regret that Benegal does not let us see an entire production number; instead he interrupts them, or foregrounds the technique of their creation. Both are strategies to insure that we aren't allowed to fully enter into the Bollywood fantasy, as in the opening sequence of the movie (the production number ends at about the 3:50 mark):


Together with Benegal's sensitive direction, Patil's performance makes Bhumika an indelible experience. For an appreciation that places the film in the context of 1970s parallel cinema and illuminates the film's many subtexts, see the essay posted at Philip's Fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema.

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Education

An EducationAt my bookstore we were talking about the laziness involved in comparison reviewing. Trust me: any writer hailed as "a modern-day Jane Austen" isn't. She couldn't be, even (or perhaps especially) if she were trying to be. It's the same with movies that are claimed to be "Hitchcockian"--it's a guarantee that they'll be laughably bad suspense thrillers that are neither suspenseful nor thrilling.

But there is a recent movie that has a Hitchcockian feel, at least for its first half, and not because anyone gets murdered. The writer (Nick Hornby, basing his script on Lynn Barber's memoir of her adolescence in the early 1960s) and director (Lone Scherfig) of An Education (2009) understand the perverse dynamic of some of Hitchcock's most memorable work. In Rear Window (1954), for example, Jimmy Stewart's Jeff is a Peeping Tom who spends his days and nights spying on his neighbors. But we are quickly drawn into complicity with him; soon we're seeing his neighbor's actions through his eyes and can't wait for him to pick up his telephoto lens again. In Psycho (1960), Anthony Perkin's nerdish motel clerk Norman Bates is trying to dispose of a dead body. He places it in the trunk of the victim's car, and tries to sink the car in a swampy pond behind the motel. The car rolls into the water, tips upward, and sticks there, half exposed. In that moment we feel an sharp twinge of anxiety--for Norman!--and then a surge of relief when the car finally sinks beneath the surface. We want him to get away with it; not for the first or last time, Hitchcock has manipulated us into identifying with the wrong character.

There's a similar moment in An Education, though it doesn't involve any bodies in car trunks. David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his mid-30s, has been taking the 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) out to classical concerts, fine restaurants and swank jazz clubs. At first, we're suspicious--why isn't this man dating women his own age? But David is charming, reasonably handsome, flush with cash, and provides Jenny with an escape from her boring suburban life and predictable future programmed by her crassly calculating father (Alfred Molina). Despite some warning signs--not least that David is at least twice Jenny's age--we become as dazzled by Jenny's new experiences as she is.

Midway through the film, David suggests to Jenny that they go off to Oxford for a weekend with another couple. Jenny is sure that her parents, and especially her father, will object to her spending a weekend in David's company. But David bets that he can convince him, and we find ourselves on David's side, hoping that the unsympathetic father will give in. The creepiness of the situation--that we're hoping for David, a predatory older man, to succeed in maneuvering a teenaged girl into bed--only sinks in once they're on their way.

That scene in the hotel bedroom in Oxford is creepy, and along with Jenny we start to notice cracks developing in David's smooth facade. But as Jenny becomes increasingly disillusioned with David, her parents become ever more enamoured.

JennyThe best thing about An Education is the performance of Carey Mulligan as Jenny. She is utterly convincing as a 16-year-old yearning for adult sophistication, but unprepared for adult duplicity. The rest of the cast is excellent, too (and many faces--Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, and brief appearances by Emma Thompson and Sally Hawkins--are familiar from Jane Austen adaptations).

Hornby's script doesn't always allow the characters a believable complexity--the father and the headmistress of Jenny's school verge on caricature and are rescued only by the actors portraying them. The script also invents some scenes and changes details of Barber's memoir both small (names have been changed, of course, and that first weekend alone together was in Wales, not Oxford) and large.

That's to be expected, of course, but one deviation from reality is particularly damaging. The school's headmistress (Thompson) is a coldly unsympathetic upholder of propriety. She refuses to allow Jenny to return to school because she's no longer a virgin, and she's virulently anti-Semitic, as well (David is Jewish). All of that is true to Barber's memoir. In the film Jenny then seeks out her sympathetic English teacher (Williams) for private tutoring for her exams. But according to Barber's memoir, it was the headmistress who sent the teacher to her. That change only serves to make the film's headmistress seem like an ogre, instead of the confused and conflicted human being she was in reality.

An Education raises many uncomfortable questions. Among them: Is David's exploitation of Jenny redeemed to even a tiny extent by the (limited) liberation from the gray constraints of suburban life that he enables her to experience? And how would we feel if the genders were reversed? (One of my favorite operas is, after all, Der Rosenkavalier, in which a 35-year-old woman is carrying on an affair with a 17-year-old boy.)

The film also brought up some bittersweet memories of a time when I, like Jenny, rushed to embrace adulthood but was nearly overwhelmed by the emotional consequences. An Education is not a flawless work of art, but it is a well-wrought and thought-provoking film that is very much worth seeing--particularly if you recognize a part of yourself in the bright, impatient and impulsive Jenny.