Saturday, December 28, 2013

Farooq Shaikh, 1948-2013

I was saddened to learn this morning of the death of Farooq Shaikh, an actor equally at ease in comedy and drama. He appeared in films directed by Satyajit Ray (The Chess Players, 1977) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Rang Birangi and Kissi Se Na Kehna (1983)), among may others. If you are not familiar with Farooq Shaikh's work, I recommend the following films as places you might want to start:

Chashme Buddoor (Knock on Wood, 1981): Shaikh stars as university student Siddharth (perhaps an in-joke; Shaikh had been a student at Siddharth College of Law), who meets and falls in love with the lovely Neha (played by Deepti Naval). Siddharth's roommates, though, decide to interfere, in part because Siddharth's seriousness about Neha throws their own aimlessness (and lack of romantic success) into stark relief. Soon, though, they realize their mistake—only to discover that it's much harder to get the couple back together than it was to break them up. This charming comedy written and directed by Sai Paranjpye is pleasurable not only for its tongue-in-cheek take on filmi conventions, but especially for the warm and affectionate chemistry between Shaikh and Naval:

Katha (Story, 1983): Another Sai Paranjpye film featuring Farooq Shaikh and Deepti Naval. This time, though, Shaikh plays a heartless cad, Basu. Local beauty Sandhya (Naval) sees only Basu's charm, however, and falls in love—to the dismay of Rajaram (Naseeruddin Shah), Sandhya's shy, good-hearted neighbor who has loved her from afar for years. Basu isn't evil, but he is hugely self-centered and manipulative, basically seeing everyone he meets as a means to his own ends. Farooq Shaikh effectively portrays Basu's almost pathological narcissism, while at the same time suggesting why people might be drawn to him. Of course, Basu's lies can't go undiscovered forever, but when they are revealed will it be too late for Sandhya?

Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981): Based on Mirza Hadi Ruswa's novel, Muzaffar Ali's film about the impossible love of the courtesan Umrao Jaan (Rekha, in her greatest role) and the Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh) has achieved classic status. In the scene below, long after their affair has ended, Umrao Jaan is unexpectedly reunited with the Nawab—and with his new bride, Umrao Jaan's childhood friend Bismillah (Prema Narayan). The wistful sadness of "Justju Jis Ki Thi," composed by Khayyam and sung by Asha Bosle, perfectly expresses the emotions of all three characters in this moment:

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013): In one of his final roles, Farooq Shaikh plays Rishikant, the father of the main character Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), who looks indulgently on his son's foibles and tries to help him realize his dreams. This warm, loving role is a fitting swan song for this deeply appealing actor. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Books


Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing (2012): Somehow I'd remained unaware of Tim Kreider until this year. Kreider is a cartoonist and a writer on film, books, and, as in this collection, his own life. As I wrote in my post on We Learn Nothing, "each of his insightful (and often darkly hilarious) essays is about how a rueful, observant and reflective single man in early middle age assesses the passage of time, with its gains (experience, an occasional glimmering of wisdom, and a tenuous emotional maturity) and losses (passion, heedlessness, and many loved ones)."


In chronological order:

Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1823-1833): "Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and Eugene Onegin (1823-1833) is his greatest work," I wrote on my first encounter with this masterpiece in Charles Johnston's faithful, readable and elegant translation. And Pushkin's novel in verse has been an inspiration to many other artists, including Tchaikovsky, Nabokov, and more recently Vikram Seth.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868): T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels." The first and last of Eliot's claims for this unruly novel are doubtful, but as I wrote in my post on The Moonstone,  "Collins' novel remains compelling, less for the implausible solution of the mystery than for what it reveals about its author's unconventional life and unusual attitudes" towards opium use, mixed-race parentage, same-sex affection, and anti-imperialism.

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938). The producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to the director Alfred Hitchcock that "every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind." In my post on Rebecca I wrote that I would expand Selznick's observation to include "anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us." My post, by the way, includes a defense of Hitchcock's version, which I've come to feel is among his best films.

Phillip Pullman, The Sally Lockhart Mysteries (1985-1994): While these young-adult novels set in late Victorian England "are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses" for Pullman's intrepid heroine. As I wrote in my post on the series, though, due to its high level of violence and frankness about sex be prepared for some interesting questions if you give these books to a young person.

The novels of Javier Marías may be the subject of a full-length post in the near future. Many of his books are structured like mysteries, but mysteries in which there is no clear solution. Marías is more interested in the dark undercurrents in everyday lives, and the way his narrators try to navigate among uncertainties and doubts, than in neat conclusions. His style may take a bit of getting used to; most of his books are written in a way that approximates how we actually think and speak, that is, with hesitations and reconsiderations and digressions, with one thought leading into the next rather than emerging as perfectly formed and discrete ideas. With their chains of stream-of-consicousness clauses, his sentences must be difficult to translate, and Margaret Jull Costa, his regular translator, generally does an excellent job (although her occasional use of British slang may feel somewhat jarring for American readers).

Perhaps a good place to start is with his latest novel, The Infatuations (Knopf, 2013). A man is murdered on the street in an apparently random act of violence. But then it turns out that perhaps the violence wasn't so random; and then, that the murdered man may have been harboring a secret. As the narrator María explores further, the motives and culpability of the man's wife, his best friend, the mentally disturbed murderer, and the victim himself become ever murkier. The only clarity is that, when it comes to the human heart, nothing can be certain.

Biggest disappointment

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf, 2013). Lahiri's second novel is on many critics' best-of lists this year. But I felt that in most of this book Lahiri has taken the writing-program dictum "show, don't tell" to a blank, affectless extreme. And in those few moments in the book when she is not following one clipped, terse, surface-skimming sentence with another, she produces instead jarringly mixed metaphors and thuddingly obvious symbols:

Around Bela her mother had never pretended. She had transmitted an unhappiness that was steady, an ambient signal that was fixed. It was transmitted without words. And yet Bela was aware of it, as one is aware of a mountain. Immovable, insurmountable...

When her mother had left Rhode Island, she'd taken her unhappiness with her, no longer sharing it, leaving Bela with a lack of access to that signal instead. What had seemed impossible had taken place. The mountain was gone. In its place was a heavy stone, like certain stones embedded deep when she dug  on the beach, in the sand. Too large to unearth, its surface partly visible, but its contours unknown.

She taught herself to ignore it, to walk away. And yet the hole remained her hollow point of origin, the cold crosshairs of her existence.

She returned to it now. At last the sand gave way, and she was able to pry out what was buried, to raise it from its enclosure. For a moment she felt its dimensions, its heft in her hands. She felt the strain it sent through her body, before hurling it once and for all into the sea.
Perhaps Lahiri should be given credit for attempting something a bit different stylistically than her usual well-crafted short stories, but as this passage shows, the writing is in places shockingly clunky. As a result, The Lowland narrowly beat out Vikram Seth's slack, overlong and sloppily written A Suitable Boy (1993) as the biggest disappointment of 2013.

More favorites: Classic Bollywood, Contemporary Bollywood, Movies

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Movies

Some years trying to think of movies to include on my favorites list is a bit of a struggle. Not this year; in fact, I'm leaving some excellent films off the list just to keep it a manageable length. Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first watched in 2013:

Classic Hollywood

Libeled Lady

If in our Classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna, in our Classic Hollywood viewing it was the year of Myrna Loy. We started with the brilliant Libeled Lady (1936). When they say "They don't make 'em like that anymore," this is the kind of movie they're talking about: a witty, sophisticated comedy delivered with sparkling timing by a quartet of glamorous stars (Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and a radiant Loy). Tracy plays a newspaper editor who's being sued for libel by Loy; to trap her in a compromising situation, he asks Powell to romance her. But for there to be a scandal, Powell needs to be married—and Tracy suggests his own long-suffering fiancée Harlow for the job. But as in comic opera, the convoluted plot is almost beside the point.

Myrna Loy, Asta, and William Powell in After the Thin Man

After seeing Libeled Lady, we decided that we had to rewatch all of the Powell-Loy Thin Man films just so we could continue to enjoy their affectionate onscreen chemistry. (After the Thin Man (1936) is not only the most cleverly-titled sequel ever, it gets my vote as the best film in the series.) And even that wasn't enough: we also watched some of Loy's earlier and later films, including Vanity Fair (1932)—Becky Sharp was one of her last femme fatale roles—and the decades-ahead-of-its-time The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). That film follows three World War II veterans (played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews and actual veteran Harold Russell) returning to civilian life, and their struggles with post-traumatic stress, disability, self-medication, and societal indifference. And, yes, Myrna Loy is as radiant as ever.


Today's Special

A micro-budget independent film, Today's Special (2009) was far and away the best recent American movie we saw in 2013. The cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey, Harish Patel, and writer Aasif Mandvi, who is brilliant at portraying wide-eyed disbelief as catastrophe piles on catastrophe. Mandvi plays Samir, a chef who reluctantly agrees to give up his dreams of moving to France in order to take over his family's struggling Indian restaurant in Queens. But Samir has never cooked Indian food before, and quickly discovers that he's in way over his head—until a loquacious cab driver (Shah) comes to the rescue. As I wrote in my post on Today's Special, Mandvi's film "shows that it's not the budget of a movie that counts, but the imagination of its creators."


We saw some wonderful films from outside the U.S. this year, but three stood out as favorites:


Valentin (2002), an Argentinian film, is set in 1969, just a few years before the country was plunged into social upheaval, a military coup and the Dirty War. Valentin (the wonderful Rodrigo Noya) is a precocious 8-year-old who tries to make sense of a confusing adult world. The extended scene where Valentin spends the day with his neglectful divorced dad's new girlfriend (Julieta Cardinali), and we see her dawning awareness that she faces a critical moment of decision, is heartbreaking. And the interview with writer-director Alejandro Agresti included as an extra on the DVD, shot in a poorly lit, noisy cafe in the middle of the night, is essential viewing as he reveals the elements of the film that were drawn from his own story.

No (2012), based on a play by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta (of Il Postino fame) is about the 1988 plebiscite on dictator Augusto Pinochet's continued rule. Pinochet had declared himself President in 1973 after violently seizing power in the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende. The film follows René (Gael García Bernal), a designer of slick ad campaigns, as he tries to convince the earnest, angry opponents of Pinochet to use humor, suggestion and symbolism to win the hearts and minds of voters. We want the "No" campaign to win, but at the same time we realize that René represents the triumph of image over substance in political discourse. With its urgency and immediacy, No gives at least a hint of what it must have been like as a democratic movement struggled to emerge in Chile after 16 years of brutal suppression.

My Mother's Castle

My Mother's Castle (1990) is the sequel to My Father's Glory. Both movies are based on Marcel Pagnol's memoirs of growing up in the forbidding but beautiful landscape of Provence in the years before World War I. Every image is suffused with the glow of nostalgia and the warmth of remembered family closeness.


Perhaps because my partner worked in theater and dance for many years, we love performing arts documentaries. We saw several excellent ones in 2013:

Pina (2011) is Wim Wender's meditation on Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. The choreographer herself, who died during the filming, is largely absent; instead, we watch her extraordinary, generation-spanning company of dancers performing her works, which unfold with the logic of dreams.

Pelléas et Mélisande

Two excellent films follow the complex process of staging opera. In Pelléas et Mélisande: Le Chant des Aveugles (Song of the Blind, 2008) we watch stage director Olivier Py and conductor Marc Minkowski working with a group of French and Russian performers on Debussy's mesmerizing score. This fluid documentary exemplifies director Philippe Béziat's axiom that "Film is the continuation of music by other means." Becoming Traviata (2012) follows rehearsals for Verdi's opera La Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence festival. The cast features the extraordinary Natalie Dessay as Violetta. At the end of the opera, Violetta collapses, and the final images of the film are of Dessay falling to the stage over and over, trying to find a physical expression of the emotional truth of the moment.

Every Little Step (2008) focusses on the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Just as in the musical, we meet the auditioning actors and learn about their lives, hopes and fears. Structuring the film as a reflection of the show that it's about is a clever device. To make it all even more meta, we also get interviews with the original cast in the present day, some grainy footage of their 1970s performances, and excerpts from tapes of the famous rap sessions held by Michael Bennett as he was developing the show. Before seeing the film I wasn't the biggest fan of A Chorus Line, but I found Every Little Step irresistible.

Stories We Tell

Finally, actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012) is a compelling film about the solution to a longstanding family mystery. When Sarah reaches adolescence, her siblings tell her that there are rumors that Sarah's dad might not be her biological father. After a decade of uncertainty, Sarah sets out to find the truth—only to discover that there are as many stories about her parents' complicated marriage as there are witnesses.

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Books

Last time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

My viewing of current Bollywood movies tends to lag about six months behind their release dates. It's strange to me that no San Francisco cinema has yet realized that it should be showing first-run Bollywood films. I could travel to smarter theaters in Emeryville, Fremont or Santa Clara, but I can't quite bring myself to turn watching a movie into a five- or six-hour commitment. I'm not a fan of streaming, so I still wait for the DVD release (although eventually, of course, DVDs will be going away). But the availability of new Bollywood movies on DVD rental services like Netflix is spotty, to say the least.

So I haven't yet seen Chennai Express, Shuddh Desi Romance, Phata Poster Nikla Hero, Ram-Leela, R...Rajkumar, Krrish 3 or, of course, Dhoom 3 (although in the cases of the last two, it sure feels like I've seen them already). My favorite contemporary Bollywood films are necessarily chosen from those released from late last year through the first half of this year. And they are:

Sridevi in English Vinglish

English Vinglish
Shashi (Sridevi), an Indian housewife and mother, begins to feel excluded and taken for granted by her family, the rest of whom slip easily between Hindi and English. On a trip to New York to help with the wedding of her niece, feeling overwhelmed and isolated, Shashi decides to take a crash course in English. Her choice has unexpected consequences for those around her, her family, and especially for Shashi herself.

English Vinglish (2012) was Sridevi's first Hindi film after a hiatus of nearly a decade. In my original post on English Vinglish, I wrote that it "is a nicely observed and thoughtful film on issues of language, cultural identity, and family dynamics...And I hope it's only the first of many well-written, nuanced roles for Sridevi on her return."

It also has an improbably catchy title tune; somehow that "Hah!" perfectly captures Shashi's joy in her small triumphs as she begins to broaden her linguistic (and emotional) horizons:

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani
A smart, tomboyish but shy girl falls secretly in love with a popular, extroverted boy. She never lets him know, but eight years later she's blossomed into a beauty—and is suddenly reunited with her old crush...

Ranbir and Deepika in YJHD

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013) is largely a mashup of elements from two earlier Karan Johar films, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003). So it doesn't win any points for originality. What it does have, though, as those earlier films did in Kajol and Preity Zinta, is a compellingly sympathetic heroine. As I wrote in my original post on YJHD, "Deepika, cast against type, gives an utterly believable and highly affecting performance as Naina." As the unobservant object of her affections, Ranbir Kapoor is also in good form, but it's Deepika's Naina that we come to care about.

Oh, and having an item by the fabulous Madhuri Dixit doesn't hurt, either:

Kandukondain Kandukondain
Speaking of compellingly sympathetic heroines, Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It, 2000) has two: Sowmya (Tabu) and Meenu (Aishwarya Rai). This film doesn't quite qualify for my Contemporary Bollywood Favorites list even under my extremely lax and entirely self-imposed rules: it wasn't released recently, it's not a Bollywood film, and I didn't watch it for the first time this year. I can't resist giving this wonderful Tamil adaptation of Sense & Sensibility another plug, though. As I wrote in Bollywood Rewatch 3, Rajiv Menon's film "manages to be surprisingly faithful to its source while believably updating the story to the present." And if there's no scene in Austen's novel where Marianne Dashwood dances in front of a giant stylized peacock, there should be:

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Movies

Last time: Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood