Monday, May 30, 2011

Men against women: 7 Khoon Maaf, No One Killed Jessica, and Pardes

7 Khoon Maaf (Seven Forgiven Murders, 2011) is Vishal Bhardwaj's attempt at a modern film noir. According to a typology proposed by John Blaser in No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir, there are three kinds of noir women: the supportive Good Woman, the suffocating Marrying Kind, and the seductive Femme Fatale. Typically, the femme fatale "refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women."

But in 7 Khoon Maaf, being a devoted wife and loving mother is all that Susanna (Priyanka Chopra) wants. Unfortunately for her and for them, the men who are drawn to marry her all have fatal flaws: they are emotionally repressed and controlling (the wooden Neil Nitin Mukesh is perfectly cast in the role of a rigid army officer), needy and narcissistic (John Abraham as a heroin- and groupie-addicted rock star), brutal (Irrfan Khan as a sadistic poet), deceptive (Aleksandr Dyachenko as a Russian agent with a double life), exploitative (Annu Kapoor as a police inspector who coerces Susanna into sex), and murderous (Naseeruddin Shah as a doctor whose mushroom diet can cure or kill). Those flaws are literally fatal for each of the men in turn, for like Blaser's description of the classic femme fatale, Susanna must "resort to murder to free herself from an unbearable relationship with a man who would try to possess and control her, as if she were a piece of property or a pet."

I haven't read the Ruskin Bond short story "Susanna's Seven Husbands" on which writer/director Bhardwaj based his movie, but the main problem with the film version is one of tone. At times 7 Khoon Maaf seems to be straining for black comedy, and at others seems to take itself entirely seriously. There's also a distracting issue with chronology—characters seem to age at different rates—and an unmotivated ending. Although it's interesting to see Priyanka playing such an ambiguous role, it's not the best work of anyone involved.

No One Killed Jessica (2011) highlights a real-life incident in which, in front of horrified witnesses at a party, model Jessica Lall was shot and killed by Manu Sharma, the son of a high-ranking politician. When the case finally came to trial after seven years, a taped confession by the killer was ruled inadmissible, it was discovered that evidence had been tampered with, and several key eyewitnesses retracted their testimony and claimed that they hadn't seen the shooting after all. Sharma and his accomplices were acquitted.

Two reporters from the newsmagazine Tehelka, Harinder Baweja and Vineet Khare, went undercover to investigate witness tampering and police malfeasance in the case. Through dogged and courageous work the journalists exposed the bribes and intimidation employed by the Sharma family to turn the witnesses and contaminate the evidence.

It's a compelling story, well-presented by writer/director Raj Kumar Gupta. And it's a true pleasure to watch the interplay between Vidya Balan as Jessica's sister Sabrina and Rani Mukherji as fictionalized crusading journalist Meera Gaity. Meera isn't a cardboard heroine: she smokes, is far from demure, sleeps with her sometime boyfriend, and won't take no for an answer. It's great to see Rani—who sometimes seems to be cast for her ability to twinkle appealingly and cry convincingly—in the role of a tough, feisty and not entirely likeable woman. In the role of Sabrina, Vidya Balan convincingly portrays a woman slowly emerging from emotional shell-shock and beginning to acknowledge the possibility of hope. Note to Bollywood producers: can we please have more movies with substantive, complex roles for actresses of the caliber of Rani and Vidya?

In Pardes (Foreign, 1997), Ganga (Mahima Chaudhry in her film debut) is a beautiful, voluptuous but innocent girl brought up in an idyllic rural village. As her name and other attributes might suggest, Ganga is the embodiment of Traditional Indian Values. Which is precisely why NRI millionaire Kishorilal (Amrish Puri) approaches Ganga's father Suraj Dev (Alok Nath) to arrange Ganga's marriage to his son.

In a Yash-Chopra-esque song sequence for "I Love My India," Kishorilal, Ganga, Suraj Dev—and director Subhash Ghai in a brief cameo—celebrate the folkloric, mythical, unchanging India that for the men is represented by Ganga:

Yeh duniya ik dulhan
Dulhan ke maathe ki bindiya
Yeh mera India
I love my India
Vatan mera India
Sajan mera India
Karam mera India
Dharam mera India

The world is a bride,
and the jewel on her forehead
is my India.
I love my India.
India my homeland,
India my beloved,
India my fate,
India my religion:

Kishorilal's son Rajiv (Apurva Agnihotri) is thoroughly Westernized, meaning that he smokes, drinks, and sleeps with his (ex-?)girlfriend. Rajiv's foster brother Arjun (Shah Rukh Khan) is sent to India to act as a go-between. As Arjun's name suggests, he's loyal to a fault: he claims that a pack of cigarettes that Ganga finds in Rajiv's coat is his own, and when she pleads for the truth tells her that Rajiv will make her happy.

Of course, when Ganga travels to America to visit with Rajiv after their engagement, things don't go well. On a visit to Las Vegas, the city that epitomizes Western sinfulness, a drunken Rajiv tries to rape Ganga. Arjun promises to help Ganga and returns with her to India, immediately leading Rajiv, Kishorilal, and Suraj Dev to conclude that they are having an affair. Soon all three are trying to kill Arjun.

Perhaps the Subhash Ghai writing and directing credits should have given me fair warning me about Pardes. For me, Ghai's movies require having a finger ever ready to press the fast forward button on the DVD remote; see my brief review of Khal Nayak (The Anti-Hero, 1993), and Ajnabi's hilarious essay on the "shameful classic" Yaadein (Memories, 2001). When Alok Nath, Bollywood's quintessential Good Dad, is reduced to a screaming maniac wielding a sword and trying to kill his own daughter and her supposed lover, then we're too deep into Subhash Ghai Land for the likes of me.

If you can ignore the movie's simplistic dichotomies and a story that's both unoriginal and over-the-top, Pardes does have some redeeming features. The lovely Chaudhry is styled and dressed to look like Madhuri Dixit circa Khal Nayak, which is not a bad thing. And as the catchy "I love my India" suggests, the music is well done, especially the climactic qawwali "Nahin Hona Tha". Finally, as huge SRK fans my partner and I are willing to forgive much in order to watch our man in action. But I don't think we'll ever be tempted again to go Pardes.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

Cover of Sacred GamesA vast range of classic and contemporary Bollywood films are alluded to over the course of Vikram Chandra's 950-page novel Sacred Games (HarperCollins, 2006). The cover of the paperback version reinforces the Bollywood connection: it features images of what look like Isha Koppikar from Don (2006) and (perhaps) Abhishek Bachchan from Dhoom (2004). The crime-movie references are highly relevant, because Sacred Games tells the story of small-time thug Ganesh Gaitonde's rise to become the ruthless, hyper-violent ruler of a criminal empire. Intertwined with Gaitonde's story is that of police inspector Sartaj Singh, who becomes involved in the investigation of Gaitonde's final days.

But to call Sacred Games a crime novel or thriller wouldn't convey the imaginative richness of Chandra's storytelling or the vividness of his descriptions of the streets and alleyways of Mumbai. We experience the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of daily life in the "maximum city" (to borrow the title of a book by Chandra's friend and collaborator Suketu Mehta), and encounter dozens of characters from chai-wallas to film stars. That narrative vividness is particularly apparent in a series of "Insets" that provide in-depth backstories for several of the characters. The insets also reveal some unsuspected ironies and surprising familial connections.

Chandra's own familial connections to Bollywood include his mother Kamna Chandra (writer for Prem Rog (1982), Chandni (1989), and 1942: A Love Story (1993)); his sister Tanuja Chandra (writer for Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), director of Sangharsh (1999) and Sur (2002)); his sister Anupama Chopra, writer of books on Sholay, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Shah Rukh Khan; and his brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra, writer/director/producer of Parinda (1989), 1942: A Love Story, and Mission Kashmir (2000).

Chandra himself contributed to Mission Kashmir, a film to which there are a number of explicit and coded references in Sacred Games. There are the name-checks of Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt. There's that impossibly good-looking gigolo, who sounds like he's modelled on another hunky actor from MK: "He was tall, an inch or two over six feet, and had the smallest waist Sartaj had seen on  a man in a long while. He narrowed like an inverted triangle from the shoulders to the hips, and the quick travel from the gym-broadened shoulders to the absence of belly gave him the look of a cartoon figure" (p. 438). And then there's that morning when Sartaj sings a certain song in the shower: "Things were falling apart, but Sartaj stood in the shower and soaped his chest and sang Bhumro bhumro along with the radio from the apartment below" (p. 528):

Preity Zinta and Hrithik Roshan in a scene from Mission Kashmir.

In Sacred Games filmi songs, classic and contemporary, provide the soundtrack of the lives of cops and criminals alike, and the references will provide an additional level of pleasure for Bollywood fans. (At the back of the book Chandra has provided a glossary that identifies many of his references, plus a list of his favorite films.)

There is also some sly commentary on the film business: when Gaitonde finances a movie for Zoya Mirza, a strikingly tall Miss India turned gangster's mistress turned surgically-enhanced Bollywood star, he dreams big: "'The emotion of Mother India, the scale of Sholay, the speed of Amar Akbar Anthony. That's what we want'" (p. 676). What he gets is the generic thriller International Dhamaka, which contains "shooting and kissing and car crashes and tears and torn hearts" (p. 682)—and which flops.

Sacred Games could itself be made into a filmi thriller. But ultimately what makes it compelling isn't the mystery plot but the fullness and complexity of its characters and the messy, corrupt, unjust, violent but vibrant world in which they, like we, must live.

Vikram Chandra has his own website,, and there is also one for Sacred Games itself:

Update 5 June 2011: Since writing this post I've learned that Sartaj Singh first made an appearance in the story "Kama" from Vikram Chandra's 1997 collection Love and Longing in Bombay. In that story his divorce from his wife Megha is finalized, an event from which he is still recovering as Sacred Games opens.

I've also learned that there is 1999 movie starring Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna called International Khiladi which may be one of the models for International Dhamaka. International Khiladi is a crime/mob story, it features international travel (to exotic Canada), and lots of fight scenes, tears and torn hearts. Not to mention lady wrestlers! You can read a hilarious discussion of it on the Bollywhat? Forum here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lark Rise to Candleford

We've become addicted to BBC literary adaptations, and are currently halfway through the excellent first season of Lark Rise to Candleford (2008). The series is based on three semi-autobiographical novels by Flora Thompson: Lark Rise (1939), Over to Candleford (1941), and Candleford Green (1943). Thompson's life closely parallels that of her fictional heroine Laura Timmins (Thompson's maiden name was Timms): like Flora, Laura is born in a rural hamlet, has a stonemason father, a mother named Emma, and at age 15 goes to work at the post office in a nearby town.

Laura Timmins

Olivia Hallinan as Laura

I haven't read the books on which it's based, but the Lark Rise television series at first feels like a cross between Anne of Green Gables (by which I mean the delightful 1985/87 CBC Television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne Shirley novels) and Cranford (the excellent 2005 BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novellas). Like Anne, at its center is the story of a young rural woman learning to make her way in the wider world; like Cranford, its setting offers a microcosm of the social, political, economic and technological changes occurring in England in the late 19th century.

There's another reason Lark Rise resembles Elizabeth Gaskell: key members of its superb cast are drawn from the adaptions Cranford (the magnificent Julia Sawalha—Jessie Brown in Cranford—as Candleford's postmistress Dorcas Lane, and Claudie Blakley—Martha in Cranford—as Laura's mother Emma) and 2004's North and South (Brendan Coyle—working-class hero Nicholas Higgins in North and South—as Laura's father Robert). You might also recognize a familiar face or two from various Charles Dickens and Jane Austen adaptations.


Julia Sawalha as Dorcas

For its first five episodes Lark Rise is a warm, humanistic portrait of hamlet and town. Through Laura's eyes we come to know the the colorful characters who inhabit Lark Rise, the class tensions between hamlet and town, and the wisdom and kindness of Dorcas Lane. Each episode features a minor crisis which is resolved through Dorcas' quiet good sense. We gradually learn more about the characters, including what seems to be the warmth of a lingering but unacknowledged affection between Dorcas and the handsome squire Sir Timothy Midwinter (to the dismay of his wife, Lady Adelaide). At the end of each episode, a voice-over from the adult Laura frames everything we've just seen in the retrospective glow of nostalgia.

Claudie Blakley as Emma and Brendan Coyle as Robert

Had Lark Rise continued in this way we would have been perfectly content to keep watching, especially since the series' writing, acting, and visuals are so fine. But then came Episode 6.

In Episode 6 a mute young girl, abandoned by her impoverished family, inadvertently exposes the unspoken fears and longings of any number of characters, including Emma...


Lady Adelaide...

Lady Adelaide

Ruby Douglas as Polly and Olivia Grant as Lady Adelaide

Sir Timothy...

Sir Timothy

Ben Miles as Sir Timothy

and Dorcas herself.


Everything comes to a head on one sleepless night where half of Candleford winds up at the post office, while Dorcas and her staff desperately try to conceal Polly's presence. It is on this night, as well, that Lady Adelaide and Dorcas finally meet for a heart-to-heart talk—an exchange of confidences that is emotionally perilous for both of them.

Meanwhile, there is a misdelivered love poem wreaking havoc, awakened memories of lost loved ones, and the ever-watchful presence of the meddling Pratt sisters:

The Pratts

Matilda Ziegler as Pearl and Victoria Hamilton as Ruby

The episode is brilliantly written and structured, and takes the series into different and more deeply affecting territory. We can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Update 14 May 2011: For readers in the SF Bay Area, KTEH, the PBS station for the South Bay and San Francisco peninsula, is showing the first season of Lark Rise on Saturdays at 9 pm. The first episode will be broadcast tonight.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ian Bostridge with Les Violons du Roy

Ian Bostridge Three Baroque Tenors CD coverIan Bostridge has been touring with a program devoted to music written for three 18th-century tenors: Francesco Borosini, who originated the roles of the defeated Sultan Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano (1724) and the usurper Grimoaldo in Rodelinda (1725); Annibale Fabri, who originated the roles of Dario in Vivaldi's L'incoronazione di Dario (1717) and Berengario in Handel's Lotario (1729); and John Beard, who performed in many of Handel's English-language oratorios.

Bostridge is a tasteful, elegant singer with a beautiful English tenor voice. That voice is soft-grained and sometimes inaudilble in the lower part of his range. Instead of cutting through the sound of the accompanying chamber orchestra Les Violins du Roy, his voice was often instead just part of the aural texture. His sound is not in the least Italianate, or—fatally for his performances of opera seria—passionate.

The mismatch between Bostridge's style and his chosen repertory was immediately apparent in the Bajazet arias he sang from Handel's Tamerlano and its model, Francesco Gasparini's Il Bajazet (1711/1719). The Sultan Bajazet is in emotional extremity: he has been defeated by his enemy Tamerlane, is imprisoned, and is only prevented from an honorable warrior's suicide because of his anguish over the fate of his daughter Asteria. None of that was apparent from Bostridge's smooth, restrained delivery of the text. That flatness of affect was especially notable in the aria from Handel's Giulio Cesare (in the 1725 revival the part of Sesto, originally written for soprano Margherita Durastanti, was rewritten for Borosini). From Bostridge's performance, you would never have guessed that Sesto's father has been brutally murdered and that in this aria Sesto vows to take bloody revenge.

Bostridge, a rather tall man, has a habit of tucking his chin into his chest when singing. We were sitting in the mezzanine—usually an ideal spot to hear vocal concerts—but it felt like we were overhearing a performance being given to the first row.

In the second half of the concert Bostridge performed an aria from Vivaldi's Arsilda (1716). Hearing his melancholic, pensive delivery, I thought that he had finally recognized that his style works best in arias requiring affetuoso, or tenderness. Then I read the translation of the aria text and discovered that the character Tamese is singing, "Hostile and cruel fate will see me on my country's throne triumphing over his humiliation." The disconnect between the aria's textual meaning and Bostridge's performance, in this as in the previous arias, was jarring.

I had thought that in general I preferred it when singers allowed the music to convey an aria's emotion, rather than attempting to telegraph it vocally. But Bostridge's bland performance of these fiery opera seria arias showed me the limitations of that approach.

I was thinking that Bostridge's fine, light voice is the sort that is best suited to English-language oratorio—something he probably hates to hear—when he proved me right by singing two arias from Handel's Hercules (1744) and the highlight of the concert, an encore of the sensuous "Softly rise, O southern breeze" from William Boyce's serenata Solomon (1743):

In concert the obbligato bassoon was played exquisitely by Les Violons du Roy's Nadina Mackie Jackson. In fact, the playing of this modern-instrument band employing period-instrument style under the direction of Bernard Labadie was simply brilliant throughout. It was a particular pleasure to hear Boyce's delightful Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, and afterwards the lovely encore from Solomon, a piece I had never heard before. I found myself wishing that Bostridge and Les Violons would return, but without the opera seria. Instead, how about an all-oratorio program?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Borrowers: Road, Movie and Action Replayy

The travelling cinema in Road, MovieDev Benegal's Road, Movie (2009) holds out the promise of being a cross between Y Tu Mama Tambien and Cinema Paradiso. Like the former, it features a young man (Vishnu, played by Abhay Deol) on a road trip/rite of passage during which he picks up a beautiful woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) with whom he becomes involved. Like the latter, it invokes cinematic nostalgia: the ancient truck that Vishnu and his fellow travellers are nursing across the desert is a travelling cinema, with a trove of old movies in back.

Unfortunately Road, Movie doesn't resemble either of its models closely enough. Instead we watch Vishnu and his passengers—Mohammed Faisal as a footpath boy, Chatterjee as a gypsy woman, and veteran Satish Kaushik, who steals the movie from affectless Abhay—rolling across endless vistas of flat, featureless desert in search of a village festival at which to show their movies. The (existential) joke—mild spoiler alert—is that the the festival only materializes once they stop looking.

—End of spoiler—

Another joke, or at least I hope so: they quickly run out of water, but are able to drive for day after day without having to replenish their fuel. Ah, the magic of the movies!

Road, Movie is supposedly based on writer/director Benegal's experiences with a travelling cinema in Rajasthan. And there is a great moment when we watch a group of villagers gazing raptly at a scene from the classic Deewar (1975). But either Benegal had trouble getting rights, or perhaps he realized that showing scenes from classic films might invite unwelcome comparisons to his own effort. In any case, there are only two instances where a film-within-the-film is shown. And the second one, where a silent film comedy is shown to a group of impoverished Rajasthanis, is a scene straight out of the Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941)—another road movie, come to think of it. Add in the improbable encounters with Chatterjee and with a too-easily-mollified band of dacoits, and Road, Movie satisfies neither as slice-of-life realism nor as an homage to past film classics.

Aishwarya Rai in Action ReplayySpeaking of movies that borrow from other movies, Action Replayy (2010)—a thinly disguised Hindi remake of Back to the Future (1985)—also disappoints. Bunty (played by Aditya Roy Kapoor and his hair) takes a trip in the time machine of My-Name-Is-Anthony-Gonsalves (Randhir Kapoor) back to the 1970s; he wants to make his parents (Akshay Kumar and Aishwarya Rai) fall in love and stop their bickering in the present. Don't think about that chronology too hard—wouldn't that make college-boy Bunty well over 30 in the present day? And wouldn't it have been easier (and avoided a few time-travel paradoxes) just to have convinced his parents to go to couples counseling?

Anyway, the only justification for a plot this lame is to provide an excuse for some fabulous 70s fashions and music, plus some comic future-meets-past scenes. Most of these opportunities are missed, with the biggest disappointment being Pritam's distinctly uninspired musical efforts. Perhaps the anti-plagiarism indemnity director Vipul Shah allegedly made Pritam sign inhibited him; if there was ever a soundtrack that could have used some borrowing, it's this one. The Holi song "Chhan Ke Mohalla" the only number that's at all memorable. Which is not to say that it musically attempts to evoke the period, because it (like most of the rest of the soundtrack) doesn't:

Aish is the one bright spot in the movie, but the focus is unfortunately on Akshay. I won't even mention the story's regressive sexual politics, because there are too many reasons already to skip this one.