Friday, November 29, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood

It's time once again for my roundup of movies, television shows, books, and music first encountered (although not necessarily first released) over the past year. In our classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna.

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz in Aap Ki Kasam (Your Promise, 1974)

Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz: Prem Kahani

Somehow after Bollywood viewing that's spanned 10 years and nearly 300 films we had never managed to see any of Mumtaz's movies before. I regret that we didn't discover her sooner—she and Rajesh are wonderful together. Their chemistry is utterly delightful to watch, as in Laxmikant-Pyarelal's title song for Prem Kahani (Love Story, 1975):

But the course of true love doesn't run smooth. In the days of the Quit India movement, wounded freedom fighter Rajesh (Rajesh) seeks refuge from a police manhunt with his childhood friend Dheeraj (Shashi Kapoor). Two inconvenient problems which Rajesh has overlooked: Dheeraj is himself a police inspector, and he's celebrating his wedding night with his new bride Kamini (Mumtaz)—the woman Rajesh loves, but rejected so that his martyrdom wouldn't burden her with widowhood. The stage is set for conflicting loyalties, parallels to Puccini's Turandot, and barely suppressed emotions surging unbidden to the surface.

I wrote in my original post on Prem Kahani that "Kamini is an incredibly compelling character: smart, courageous and complicated. And Mumtaz is wonderful in the role. In a film packed with male stars, she more than holds her own, and makes Kamini the focus of our sympathies." Mumtaz is not only adorably vivacious and playful, she can convey profound depths of feeling, as in "Phool aahista phenko" (Gently pluck the rose):

As Memsaab wrote in her wonderful review of Prem Kahani: "This is Hindi cinema at its finest, honestly. So much communicated so beautifully in one simple song! How to explain it when someone says 'Oh, Bollywood—those are musicals, right?' Sigh."

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore: Amar Prem

Mumtaz is not the only heroine who makes a superb jodi with Rajesh. Last year we also saw two of the movies in which he was paired with Sharmila Tagore, Aradhana (Adoration, 1969) and Amar Prem (Immortal Love, 1972). Both have great soundtracks; Aradhana's songs were composed by S.D. Burman and Amar Prem's by his son R.D. Burman. "Chingari koi bhadke" (A raging fire) is a beautifully melancholy example of R.D.'s art:

Anand (Rajesh) is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and seeks solace in the arms of the courtesan Pushpa (Sharmila). As in Prem Kahani, their love story does not have a conventionally happy ending, but that's one of the things that makes the film so emotionally affecting. As I wrote in my original post on Amar Prem, it "remains radical more than 40 years on for suggesting that true families are those formed by love."

Waheeda Rehman in Teesri Kasam
Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman: Teesri Kasam

We also explored some other classic movies this year. Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, 1966) is a gorgeously photographed, wistful film featuring Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman, and excellent songs composed by Shankar-Jaikishen (lyrics by Shailendra).

Hiraman (Raj), a bullock-cart driver, is hired to transport the nautanki dancer Hirabai (Waheeda) to her next performances at a village fair. Over the hours they spend together on the lengthy journey they form a deep attachment. Hiraman awakens emotions in Hirabai that for many years have remained buried, as we're shown in the lovely, sad "Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar" (My beloved has become my enemy):

Hirabai recognizes, though, that no matter how much she cares for Hiraman (and he for her), they inhabit different worlds. As I wrote in my original post on Teesri Kasam, "Sometimes, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, love can't conquer all....Teesri Kasam is a minor-key masterpiece that rewards multiple viewings."

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Suggested reading: Sex and death

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora's Box (1929)

Another in the occasional series of my favorite recent articles, posts, etc. from around the web:

1. Is the marriage plot still possible?

It can seem as though contemporary mores have killed the time-honored marriage plot. In the post "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu?: The new Bollywood romantic comedy," I wrote: "So in a modern world where everyone can choose (and change) their romantic and sexual partners at will, where class and caste barriers are diminished and the concept of social disgrace seems quaint (at least, once you've graduated from high school), is the romantic comedy still possible?"

Adelle Waldman thinks so ("Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old," New Yorker, Nov. 14, 2013). Not because we resemble the heroes and heroines of the great 19th-century novels, but because they resemble us:
"The issue turns on where we think the narrative power of those older novels originates—whether it’s attributable to the social constraints on their characters (as well as the satisfying decisiveness of their fates—the suicides on the one hand or marriages that last “forever” on the other), or if, instead, these novels are, like so many contemporary novels, primarily dependent on psychological and internal drama.

"I think that, if we look closely, we find that much of their strength derives from the internal and the timeless—from conflicts rooted in the perversity of human nature and the persistent difficulties of social life."

2. The revenge of Lulu

Would Emma have avoided marrying Charles Bovary if she'd known he was #ObsessedWithMom? Would Elizabeth Bennet have been more on her guard if she had learned that the #TallDarkAndHandsome Wickham had a #WanderingEye?  Deborah Schoenman writes about Lulu, a social networking app where women can rate the men they date ("What’s He Really Like? Check the Lulu App," New York Times, Nov. 20, 2013):
"Last summer, Neel Shah, a comedy writer, was at a bar in Los Angeles on a date with a woman who pulled up his profile. 'She started reading me these negative hashtags and I was like, "Uh, this is awkward,"' said Mr. Shah, 30, whose profile has been viewed 448 times and 'favorite' eight times for an average score of 6.7 [out of 10]. His hashtags include #TallDarkAndHandsome and #CleansUpGood, along with the less flattering #TemperTantrums and #WanderingEye."
Lulu sounds a lot like RateMe Plus, a formerly fictional feature of the near future in Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010). As Shteyngart describes RateMe Plus, it's an app that allows others to instantly rank you in categories such as "Fuckability" and "Male Hotness." The main character of Super Sad True Love Story, Lenny, "naturally had a lot of problems with his Fuckability—entering a bar in newly chic Staten Island (one prediction that has not yet come true), he is immediately and publicly ranked as the fortieth-ugliest man out of the forty men present." (See "Suggested reading: Google Glass.")

Lulu, of course, was the anti-heroine of Franz Wedekind's plays Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora's Box (1904), which became the basis of both G.W. Pabst's film Pandora's Box (1929) and Alban Berg's opera Lulu (1937). In the plays, film and opera, Lulu is outcast, condemned, and ultimately murdered for daring to adopt behaviors—having sex purely for pleasure, and using her partner's desires for her own ends—that men have always been able to take for granted. Is the way that Lulu (the app) enables women to assume the formerly male prerogative of publicly rating and shaming (or praising) their sex partners the ultimate revenge of Lulu (the character)?

3. Bad sex, part 1

Bad writing about sex just makes you feel embarrassed for the writer, especially one whose literary pretensions are painfully obvious. Jonathan Franzen's first novel The Twenty-Seventh City has been reissued, and Parul Sehgal reviews it ("Jonathan Franzen’s First Novel Was Terrible (But It's Being Reissued Anyway)," Slate Book Review, Nov. 2013):
"In this novel, Franzen first glimpses his plot, that small fertile plot that will sustain three more books: the psychosexual dramas of the nuclear family; his horror of Midwestern complacency, hectoring mothers, militantly joyless fathers. We see, too, the missteps that will continue to dog him, especially the satirist’s blind spot for his own fallibilities, for his own Midwestern complacency, his propensity for hectoring and militant joylessness. For how completely he is a Jonathan Franzen character."
The villain of Franzen's novel is a sexually manipulative South Asian woman whose aim is to subvert a morally pure Anglo man who stands in the way of her corrupt (and profitable) real estate schemes—and terrorist plots. Alas, Sehgal writes, "I confess I’m making the book sound more entertaining than it is."

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux as Adèle and Emma
in Blue Is The Warmest Color

4. Bad sex, part 2

Film critic Manohla Dargis has bravely opposed the (largely male) critical consensus that has anointed Blue Is The Warmest Color as a masterpiece about women's desire. In "Seeing You Seeing Me: The Trouble With ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color'" (New York Times, Oct. 25, 2013), she writes,
"I first saw 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' at Cannes, where I wrote 399 dissenting words on the movie and raised some of the issues I had with it...Primarily, I questioned [director Abdellatif] Kechiche’s representation of the female body. By keeping so close to Adèle, he seemed to be trying to convey her subjective experience, specifically with the hovering camerawork and frequent close-ups of her face. Yet, early on, this sense of the character’s interiority dissolves when the camera roves over her body even while she is sleeping. Is Adèle, I had wondered then, dreaming of her own hot body?"
In her original article, Dargis wrote that "the movie feels far more about Mr. Kechiche’s desires than anything else....'Men look at women,' the art critic John Berger observed in 1972. 'Women watch themselves being looked at.'* Plus ça change...."

For a contrary view, see Richard Brody's "The Problem With Sex Scenes That Are Too Good," New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2013. Brody has called Dargis' article "malevolent" ("Out Loud: Sex Onscreen," New Yorker, Nov. 18, 2013, 8:10 - 8:30).

Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders (detail). Luca Signorelli (ca. 1500)

5. Death, boredom, and smart phones

Do Italian Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli, the boring but strangely compelling contemporary novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle) and Tao Lin (Taipei), and Louis C.K. have anything in common? The wide-ranging intelligence of Zadie Smith discovers that they do: each is struggling to come to terms with the unfathomable—our own mortality ("Man vs. Corpse," New York Review of Books, Dec. 5, 2013):
"'You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there…. That’s being a person…. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty.'

"That’s the comedian Louis C.K., practicing his comedy-cum-art-cum-philosophy, reminding us that we’ll all one day become corpses. His aim, in that skit, was to rid us of our smart phones, or at least get us to use the damn things a little less ("You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your products, and then you die"), and it went viral, and many people smiled sadly at it and thought how correct it was and how everybody (except them) should really maybe switch off their smart phones, and spend more time with live people offline because everybody (except them) was really going to die one day, and be dead forever, and shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?"

* John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972, p. 47.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

The name Karan Johar in the credits of a film signals immediately that it will be glossy, formulaic and manipulative. I know this full well going in, and yet more often than not his movies still manage to sneak under my critical defenses.

It doesn't much matter whether he's listed as writer, director, or producer. The look, tone and content of most of the films he's involved with immediately announce them as a Karan Johar product, even if someone else is credited with the screenplay or direction.

That's certainly the case with the Johar-written Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come, 2003), which was the first Bollywood film I ever saw, and which to this day remains one of my favorite movies. Nikil Advani directed KHNH, but as his post-KHNH career has demonstrated either he had an incredible case of beginner's luck or he was getting constant input and advice from Johar. (Advani was Johar's assistant director on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something's Happening, 1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Sometimes Joy, Sometimes Sorrow, 2001).)

One reason I mention KHNH is because it established or continued tropes that Johar's films have frequently returned to since. Dostana (Friendship, 2008) and Student of the Year (2012) center on love triangles (as does his first film, KKHH), while Wake Up Sid (2009), I Hate Luv Storys (2010), and Ek Main aur Ek Tu (One Me and One You, 2012) feature opposites-attract main couples. All of the films focus on the struggles of their characters to find their paths in adult life in the decade following their graduation from college.

To this list of KHNH descendants add Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (These Young People Are Crazy, 2013). Naina—Deepika Padukone in one of her best performances—is a shy, bespectacled medical student. On impulse she joins a Himalayan trek with a group of her former college friends including the free-spirited Aditi (Kalki Koehlin) and the troubled Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur).

Also along on the trip is the popular, extroverted Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor). He seems to possess everything that Naina feels she lacks: confidence, social ease, spontaneity, fearlessness, good looks. Of course, Naina falls hopelessly in love with him, although Bunny is unaware of her feelings, or perhaps dismisses them as just another crush. Fate intervenes, and the two are separated, seemingly forever.

Naina and Bunny are very reminiscent of KHNH's shy, bespectacled MBA student Naina (Preity Zinta) and the object of her secret love, the popular, extroverted Aman (Shah Rukh Khan). The two Nainas are even given the same nickname by their crushes, "chashmish" (please forgive any spelling error; it's translated as "specsy" in the subtitles of KHNH):

Naina (Deepika Padukone, YJHD)

Naina (Preity Zinta, KHNH)

Eight years later, at Aditi's ultra-lavish wedding, Naina and Bunny are unexpectedly reunited. And at this point there are strong echoes of another Karan Johar film. Like the heroine of KKHH, Anjali, Naina has apparently carried a smoldering torch for her clueless crush for eight years. But this time Bunny begins to see her with new eyes, and has a familiar question for her:

Are you married?
Bunny and Naina reunite after 8 years (YJHD)

You didn't get married either?
Anjali (Kajol) and Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) reunite after 8 years (KKHH)

But despite all the parallels, which writer/director Ayan Mukerji underscores with all the subtlety of hot pink highlighter, YJHD isn't a remake of either KKHH or KHNH—quite. Unilke KKHH's Anjali, the smart, accomplished and gorgeous Naina somehow doesn't have another man in her life. And unlike KHNH's Aman, Bunny doesn't have a life-threatening disease, he's got a relationship-threatening aversion to commitment.

There are many good things in YJHD. Deepika, cast against type, gives an utterly believable and highly affecting performance as Naina, and her chemistry with Ranbir seems very real. Ranbir, although his role plays more to type than cutting against it, also convinces as Bunny, a guy who is single-mindedly focused on his dreams of travel and adventure. And when Mukerji's script isn't cribbing from other movies (and sometimes when it is), it gives Deepika and Ranbir several heartbreaking scenes together.

It's also great to see some veterans given screen time, and making the most of it. Farooq Shaikh (of the classics Umrao Jaan (1981), Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Katha (1983), among many other films) plays Bunny's father, who, despite their conflicts, helps him realize his dreams. And although her "surprise" item number was highly publicized before the film's release, watching Madhuri Dixit dance is always a pleasure:

However, I want to talk a bit about the ending of the film, so If you haven't yet seen YJHD, be aware that spoilers follow.

Deepika gives such a moving performance as Naina that we want above all else at the end of the film to see her happy. And the film supplies us with what is intended to be a happy ending. But when Bunny gives up the dream job he's been working towards for eight years to be with Naina, my logical centers started to kick in. This seems like a surefire recipe for resentment and recriminations once the honeymoon has worn off. As Bunny himself realizes,

You're very different from me

While it's unusual (and partly redresses an immense imbalance) to see the man making sacrifices for the couple, rather than (as is so often the case) the woman, I think Naina and Bunny will be facing some major issues in the not-too-distant future. Just to be perfectly clear, I would think the same thing if being with Bunny required Naina to give up her medical practice. I'm just not sure I see a way for this couple to be together and for both partners to be fulfilled.

Unless Bunny can somehow learn to take Naina's wisdom to heart. If Bunny ever goes looking for his heart's desire, he probably doesn't need to look any further than sharing a gorgeous sunset over Udaipur with Deepika Padukone:

Let's just enjoy the moment