Sunday, December 7, 2014

Favorites of 2014: Bollywood and Hollywood

Classic Bollywood

Hema Malini
In our classic Bollywood viewing 2014 was the year of the young Hema Malini. Of course, we'd seen her before as the flirtatious Basanti in Sholay (Flames, 1975; dir. Ramesh Sippy), and in her charming double role as the gentle Seeta and the feisty Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta (1972; dir. Ramesh Sippy). But somehow we'd never sought out other early Hema Malini films until this year.

But Sharafat (Decency, 1970; dir. Asit Sen), Raja Jani (Dear Raja, 1972; dir. Mohan Segal), and Tere Mere Sapne (Our Dreams, 1971; dir. Vijay Anand) showed us what we'd been missing. Of these, perhaps our favorite was Tere Mere Sapne. Hema gives a heartrending portrayal of a film star who, despite all her glamour, beauty and talent, has lost her sense of herself in trying to meet other people's ever-escalating demands. "Phur ud chala" (Where is my heart flying off to?) defines star quality; Hema is dazzling:

You can read the full posts on Tere Mere Sapne and Sharafat.

Other favorite classic films

Anuradha (1960; dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee): An idealistic doctor discovers—too late?—the price his wife and family have paid for his single-minded dedication to his work.

The Chess Players (1977; dir. Satyajit Ray): While the British are threatening to take over the last independent kingdoms in 19th-century India and rebellion is looming, the ruling class spends its time enjoying wine, women, song—and chess.

Contemporary Bollywood

Ram-Leela (2013; dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali): James Baldwin wrote of film stars that "one does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be." [1] There are few people I would rather watch be right now than the two leads of Ram-Leela, Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone. They simply glow in their physical perfection. And that glow is not just the sheen of the body makeup in Ranveer's shirtless scenes: Bhansali surrounds the actors' youth and beauty with gorgeous costumes, sets and lighting. The Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot involves two warring families and forbidden love, but the plot is almost beside the point: this film is all about star charisma and onscreen chemistry.

If "Nagada Sang Dhol" reminds you of "Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My heart belongs to you, 1998), there's a good reason. Bhansali wrote the music for Ram-Leela, but it sounds quite a bit like the scores Ismail Darbar composed for HDDCS and Devdas (2002)—not coincidentally, the two most successful films Bhansali directed before this one. (Also not coincidentally, Deepika's playback singer is Shreya Ghosal, who also did the playback for Aishwarya Rai in Devdas.) Still, stars don't have to be original, and neither do films—they just have to be compelling. And the story of Ram and Leela's love-death was the most compelling contemporary Bollywood film we saw this year.

Classic Hollywood

Jean Arthur

This year we curated our own Jean Arthur film festival. We're still waiting to rewatch Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1947), but we saw many of her other highlights, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Talk of the Town (1942), and The More the Merrier (1943). But perhaps our favorite discoveries were two of her less heralded films.

Too Many Husbands (1940) is a gender-reversed and much more suggestive version of My Favorite Wife (1940). Vicky Lowndes (Arthur) has remarried after her first husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) vanished at sea. But when Bill is rescued after being marooned on a desert island, Vicky faces a dilemma: is she married to Bill, or to her second husband, Bill's friend and business partner Henry (Melvyn Douglas)? She's not sure, and she's not in a hurry to make a decision…

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) features Arthur as a department-store salesgirl who, together with her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings), is trying to organize her fellow clerks. The store owner, John Merrick (Charles Coburn), goes undercover to try to expose the union ringleaders—only to discover that his workers have legitimate grievances.

Contemporary Hollywood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): Wes Anderson's movie about an old hotel, a priceless painting, and a murder mystery is set against the violent history of Central Europe in the 20th century. This matrushka doll of a fairy tale, with its stories within stories, is a visual and narrative delight.

Her (2013): Spike Jonze's film takes our fixation with (and anthropomorphism of) technology into a future so near it looks disturbingly like the present. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer, discovers that there's only one woman in his life who is always available, interested, and emotionally compatible: his Siri-like smartphone operating system. A depiction of our technology-enhanced isolation and anomie that's brilliant and desolating.


Tim's Vermeer

Tim's Vermeer (2013): Penn and Teller's film follows computer graphics entrepreneur Tim Jenison's attempts to recreate a Vermeer painting using optical techniques that were plausibly available in seventeenth-century Holland. The film is fascinating, both as an exploration of the optical aids that might have been used by the Old Masters, and as a portrait of Jenison's obsession.


1. James Baldwin, "The Devil Finds Work," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 575.

It's worth quoting Baldwin more fully:

The distance between oneselfthe audienceand a screen performer is an absolute: a paradoxical absolute, masquerading as intimacy. No one, for example, will ever really know whether Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—or John Waynecan, or could, really act, or not, nor does anyone care: acting is not what they are required to do. Their acting ability, so far from being what attracts their audience, can often be what drives their audience away. One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be. One does not go to see Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade: one goes to see Sam Spade, as Humphrey Bogart.
Not to belabor the point, but in Ram-Leela we are very much watching Ram as Ranveer Singh and Leela as Deepika Padukone.


  1. Agreed that early Hema is just no end of fun. I haven't seen Tere Mere Sapne, but if I can get past the Dev factor, I will.

    Ram Leela is really about the chemistry and the visual world. All of the Bhansali films that I've seen seem to have the latter, but I wonder if the first is missing in the ones I dislike (Saawariya). The chemistry was the only thing that got me through HDDCS, too. I think his films lack in the plot department, with the exception of Devdas, which has literary bones propping it up.

    1. Miranda, as you point out Bhansali's films all have lush visuals; the first time I saw Devdas I found it to be almost hallucinatory. But you're also right that in his weaker films, the visuals aren't enough. Music is another element I'd call attention to. HDDCS has great musical numbers (and Aishwarya Rai's astonishing dancing), and Devdas has songs that are exceptionally well integrated into the narrative and convey crucial information (not to mention both Aish and Madhuri Dixit.) I wrote about how carefully Devdas' musical numbers are structured in "In defense of Devdas, the movie everyone loves to hate." Although the music and dancing in Ram-Leela isn't quite at the level of those earlier films, it's still one of the film's strengths--perhaps because Bhansali clearly took Ismail Darbar's scores for HDDCS and Devdas as his models.

      Thanks for your comment!