Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Top 10 Bollywood love stories?

We're regular (if often exasperated) viewers of Namaste America's Geet TV, which airs Saturday mornings on a local independent channel. We watch it mainly for music clips from Bollywood movies past, present and forthcoming—in fact, seven years ago the clips it was airing from Devdas (2002) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) were what inspired us to seek out our first Bollywood movie (KHNH, of course).

This morning Geet TV a did a show on the Top 10 Love Stories since 1990, as voted by the vistors to the Namaste America website. Here are the results, in ascending order, with my commentary:

10. Jab We Met (When We Met, 2007): This is a favorite of many Bollybloggers, but for some reason I'm resistant to its charms. Shahid Kapoor is indeed appealing—this is the film that created a legion of diehard Shahid fanwomen like Ajnabi—and Kareena Kapoor acquits herself surprisingly well. But Tarun Arora isn't a credible romantic rival, and too much of the plot is borrowed from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). If I were choosing a Shahid movie, I might have picked (heresy, I know) Vivah (2006) instead.

9. Maine Pyar Kiya (I Fell In Love, 1989): Sorry, but no movie in which Salman gets the girl is going to wind up in my Top 10 love stories—his real-life violence against women (alleged, of course) has landed him permanently on the E & I blacklist. (We also find his acting wooden and his dancing laughable.) Anyway, if I was going to cheat and include a movie from the late 1980s I would probably choose Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988); a typically articulate review is offered by theBollywoodFan.

8. Fanaa (Destroyed by Love, 2006): As is required of every great love story, it's got some wonderful songs (the teasing courtship song "Chand Sifarish," the seductive "Dekho Na" and the gorgeous "Mere Hath Main"), and excellent chemistry between the main couple (Aamir and Kajol). For me, though, the masala quotient is just a bit too high; Ajnabi and theBollywoodFan feel differently, though.

7. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something is Happening, 1998): No argument from me here, despite Salman's presence as Shah Rukh Khan's rival for Kajol. Plus, Bollyviewer has discovered the secret of Anjali's missing years.

6. Dil To Pagal Hai (The Heart is Crazy, 1997): I'm a huge fan of both Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit, and think Karisma is the more interesting Kapoor sister. Thanks to a rash impulse one afternoon in the Bombay Music DVD shop, I even own this movie. But there is no way that I would put this in my Top 10 love stories, or Top 10 anything. Disappointing on pretty much every level. I'd rather see a wildly uneven but genuinely affecting movie like Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002) on the list instead of this one.

5. Jodhaa Akhbar (2008). This movie is beautiful. Aishwarya Rai is beautiful, Hrithik Roshan is beautiful, the sets and costumes are beautiful. What it's not is moving. Again, I'm definitely in the minority on this one; the review by Memsaab makes a strong case for its inclusion. I think I'd put Veer-Zaara (2004) in this slot, though.

4. Devdas (2002): I've never quite understood why Devdas (in any version) is considered a great love story—the title character's tragic death-spiral isn't very romantic viewing. But this film is compelling thanks to its sheer Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed sumptuousness, Ismail Darber's great music, and the affecting performance of Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi, the courtesan whose selfless love for Devdas is utterly spurned. Still, not exactly a date movie.

3. Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai (Say You Love Me, 2001): Wound up on my list of flat-out awful films of the 2000s. I find it unwatchable. I'd dump this one in a New York minute and substitute Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).

2. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Takes the Bride, 1995): I'm only amazed that this didn't come in first, as it always seems to in polls like this. While some scenes don't work for me, this movie and its songs are classics and the Shah Rukh-Kajol chemistry is undeniable.

1. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs to Another, 1999): A surprise first choice. I liked this film quite a bit when I first saw it, towards the beginning of our Bollywood viewing, but I'm not really sure what I'd think of it if I saw it again. On the positive side, it has a young, vivacious Aishwarya Rai as a dancer who loves a musician (Salman), but agrees to marry the rich man (a very sympathetic Ajay Devgan) her father selects for her. It's also got the lush direction of Sanjay Leela Bhansali and excellent songs by Ismail Darbar (also big pluses for Devdas). On the down side: Salman. Even so, I think this one would be on my list, too.

But this list still seems pretty strange. For one thing, the biggest jodi in the early 1990s was Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla, but none of their films make the list (Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (We are Travelers On The Path Of Love, 1992) is one I'm eager to see). I'm amazed (and relieved) by the absence of Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (What Am I To You, 1994), and amazed (and dismayed) by the presence of Dil To Pagal Hai and Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai. And given the preferences of the voters for Shah Rukh, Kajol, and Hrithik, I'm sure that Veracious and I both want to know why Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) is missing from the list entirely (though I find K3G a little too polished to be a personal favorite).

As ever, your own nominations and comments are welcome.

Update 12 June 2011: We recently re-watched Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and you can read my (not entirely positive) responses here.

Update 17 March 2012: The viewers of Namaste America have created another eyebrow-raising list, this time of The Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan movies.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Femininity as performance: Konkona Sen Sharma

Konkona Sen Sharma has quickly become an Exotic and Irrational favorite. She first came to our attention in Aaja Nachle (2007), where she played the distinctly unglamorous Anokhi. Anokhi is a tomboyish village girl who is trying to get Kunal Kapoor's Imran to notice her; when they are cast as the legendary lovers Laila and Majnu in the theatrical show that Madhuri Dixit's Dia is directing, Anokhi has her chance.

Even without English subtitles, the dynamics among the characters and the shifts between the film's reality and the characters' fantasies in Aaja Nachle's "Ishq Hua" should be pretty clear. That's Vinay Pathak and Sushmita Mukherjee as the older couple, and Ranvir Shorey dancing with Madhuri in his character's fantasy (music by Salim-Suleiman; directed by Anil Mehta):


Under the tutelage of the older, more experienced (and divorced) Dia, Anokhi learns that the way to a man's heart is to glam up, flirt, and become more feminine. By making a parallel between Anokhi's role in the show and her adoption of a more girlish personal style, the movie is suggesting—perhaps not inadvertently—that femininity is a performance.

And this isn't the only Konkona movie that makes that suggestion. In Life in a...Metro, Konkona plays Shruti, as a woman we are supposed to see (at least initially) as exaggeratedly severe; it's only after she gets some girl-to-girl advice about her appearance and demeanor that she begins to get some (initially unwanted) attention from Irrfan Khan's Monty. It's a measure of how good she is as an actress that the striking Konkona is so convincing as these supposedly unattractive women.

Incidentally, both movies also suggest that men are crude and self-centered until love allows them to let down their emotional guard a little. In other words, masculinity is also a performance—or to put it another way, an act.

In addition to (or sometimes along with) the ugly duckling who becomes a swan, Konkona also often plays young women beginning to make their way in the big city. Her characters, with the same mixed success as the rest of us, are seeking not only love, but creative fulfillment in their work. In Page 3 (2005), she plays a naïve journalist who realizes too late that she's become a part of the empty-celebrity machine; in Luck By Chance (2009), she plays an aspiring actress who discovers that talent and ambition aren't all that's required for Bollywood success; and in Wake Up Sid (2009), she plays a young writer who eventually lands a column in a hip nightlife magazine as the "New Girl in the City." Konkona's sympathetic performances are the best thing about all three of these movies.

Here she shows Aisha's recognition of her growing love for Ranbir Kapoor's Sid in Wake Up Sid's lovely "Iktara" (music by Shankar-Eshaan-Loy, lyrics by Javed Akhtar; directed by Ayan Mukherjee):


After Wake Up Sid, which was very successful both critically and commercially, Konkona may have felt that she was finished for the time being with "new girl in the city" roles. Certainly her current projects seem to involve very different kinds of characters. We haven't seen Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge or Right Ya Wrong (both 2010)—neither slapstick comedy nor suspense thrillers (Hitchcock aside) are favorite E & I genres. We are, though, looking forward to Iti Mrinalini (announced for a June 2010 release), Konkona's reunion with her mother Aparna Sen, who wrote and directed Konkona's breakthrough Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Three love problems: George Eliot's Middlemarch

"...men know best about everything, except what women know better."

—Celia Brooke to her sister Dorothea

George Eliot's Middlemarch is irresistibly quotable. One reason is that its characters are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged. Eliot set out to make "a study of provincial life," as her subtitle has it. She peopled her fictional village with a memorable cast of characters viewed with an affectionate but critical eye and depicted with an almost painful psychological acuity. But the frailties and failings she depicts in her early 19th-century characters are so familiar that they seem very modern—or, perhaps, as ancient as human society itself. (Image of the first edition of Middlemarch from earlywomenmasters.net)

At the center of the novel are the "three love problems" that provide the title for the fourth of Middlemarch's eight books. The first love problem is that of Dorothea Brooke, who wants to give herself passionately to important social and intellectual projects. All too aware that the prospects for such great endeavors are sadly limited in Middlemarch, the youthful Dorothea thinks she has found her soulmate in Edward Casaubon, a "formal studious man thirty years older than herself." Casaubon has spent decades doing research for a work he calls "The Key to All Mythologies," a work that Dorothea wants dedicate herself to bringing to fruition. But is Mr. Casaubon truly the "great soul" that Dorothea ardently imagines him to be? And should Casaubon's poor young cousin Will Ladislaw disabuse Dorothea of those notions, or would that be entirely self-serving, since he's falling in love with her himself?

The second love problem belongs to Fred Vincy, the son of a local manufacturer, who wants to marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth, daughter of a local estate manager. She very intelligently refuses him, however, because he has no purpose in life other than the pleasures of billiards, gambling, and hunting. In the first half of the novel we follow Fred's hapless attempts to clear himself of a debt, and his disastrous entanglement of Mary's family in his money problems—which of course, just sinks Fred lower in Mary's estimation. Fred pins his hopes for escaping debt and becoming worthy of Mary on an expected inheritance from his childless uncle, the miserly and sadistic Peter Featherstone—but will that inheritance really materialize?

The third love problem is that of Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, Fred's sister. Rosamond is the town beauty, and knows it. She wants a husband who will provide her with life full of grace, charm, and beautiful things, preferably someplace other than Middlemarch. Lydgate is a crusading young doctor who has come to Middlemarch to showcase some new medical ideas, and Rosamond builds a fantasy world around this dashing outsider. Lydgate has decided, though, that as much as he enjoys flirting with Rosamond he's not yet ready to get married; he hopes to establish himself professionally first. But Rosamond usually gets what she wants—only, is what she wants what either she or Lydgate truly need?

In her wonderful essay "Middlemarch and Everybody" (from the collection Changing My Mind (Penguin, 2009)), Zadie Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment that "the scales fall from our eyes," the moment that our self-deceptions become glaringly apparent to ourselves. Making this process even more agonizing, though, is that there are usually several layers of self-deception that have to be painfully peeled away, one by one. Of course, coming to understand that the world and other people do not match our fantasies, and learning to see them (to the extent we're able) as they are, is an essential part of growing up. But that doesn't make it less distressing, or less dangerous to our capacity to give ourselves wholly to life and to love. As Eliot writes, "To have in general but little feeling seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion." (Image of George Eliot from womenshistory.about.com)

This is why Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people": its subject is the compromises, sacrifices and disappointments of adulthood, and particularly of married life. I'd disagree with Woolf—I think Jane Austen's novels, for example, are best appreciated by people who have experienced some romantic disappointment in their lives. It's true, though, that Austen's novels typically lead her characters up to the moment of engagement and marriage, but don't go much beyond that point. The difficulty of getting that far puts the lovers to a test which, as Austen assures us of Northanger Abbey's Henry and Catherine, "so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment." But Austen's novels end just when the couples' lives together are truly beginning. (In its final moments, the superb 1995 film version of Persuasion gives us the equivalent of one of Austen's brief post-ceremony codas with a vision of Captain Wentworth and Anne sharing the sort of wonderfully companionate marriage that we've seen earlier with Admiral and Mrs. Croft.) George Eliot, on the other hand, follows her couples unsparingly after marriage, through their misunderstandings, disagreements and trials both small and large.

And that we may ultimately be disillusioned in our partners and ourselves is not, for Eliot, so much a tragedy as a necessity. "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it," she writes. In a flawed world we ourselves are necessarily flawed, and to recognize our imperfections is just the beginning of compassion and wisdom.