Monday, May 25, 2015

"Repeating a mistake": Tanu Weds Manu Returns

In my post on the first entry in this series, "Who cares if Tanu Weds Manu?," I wrote that "Himanshu Sharma's script doesn't...give us any long-term hope for this couple. I found myself thinking 'This is such a bad idea' throughout the final Tanu-Manu wedding scene—not exactly the note on which you want to end a romantic comedy."

It must also have occurred to Sharma—too late—that his main couple are mismatched, because in the very first scene of Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) they are going to a marriage counseling session.

[Aside: The problems of Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) begin with its inelegant title. Not to draw any parallels to the delightful William Powell-Myrna Loy Thin Man films—there are no terms of comparison—but what was wrong with After Tanu Weds Manu?]

The sequel takes place four years after the events in the first movie, and the couple have discovered for themselves what should have been apparent much earlier: they have nothing in common. Tanu (a compelling Kangana Ranaut) is bored with Manu and their life in a London suburb, and Manu (R. Madhavan) finds Tanu and her boredom to be deeply irritating.

But in the first of a series of improbabilities, their counseling session takes place at a mental asylum that looks like a depiction of Bedlam out a Gothic novel. And when Manu raises his voice during the session, in rush burly attendants to grab him and haul him away for involuntary committal.

Tanu heads back to her family in India, wipes off her sindoor, removes her marriage bangles, and renews her acquaintance with her former boyfriend Raja (Jimmy Shergill). There's still clearly strong affection between the two, but Raja is now engaged to another woman. Tanu consoles herself with the opportunistic Chintu (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who hopes, vainly, that flirting and motorbike rides will lead to something more.

Eventually Manu is released and returns to his parents' home in Delhi. While there he spots a young college student who, haircut aside, looks a lot like Tanu: she is Kusum (Kangana in a double role), who is attending Delhi University on an athletic scholarship. Manu and his grating buddy Pappi (Deepak Dobriyal) begin following her around the city, and in time-honored fashion Kusum's annoyance turns to love. What girl wouldn't fall head over heels with a stalker who is obsessed by her resemblance to his ex-wife?

Manu and Kusum plan to wed, but it turns out that in order to marry Manu, Kusum will have to tell her family that she is breaking the engagement they've arranged to another man: who else but Raja? And when Raja and Tanu discover the turn events are taking, they decide to crash the wedding festivities:

The music is by Krsna Solo with lyrics by Raj Shekhar; the playback singer of "Ghani Bawri" is Jyoti Nooran.

Contrivances in comedy work when they heighten the possibilities for farce. But in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, the comedic madness never reaches an inspired level, while the all-too-apparent plot absurdities prevented me from investing the self-inflicted dilemmas of the main characters with any emotional weight.

And in every case but Tanu's, writer Sharma does less with the characters in the sequel than in the original. The excellent Jimmy Shergill is largely wasted, a side plot involving Tanu's friend Payal (Swara Bhaskar) and her husband Jassi (Eijaz Khan) is underdeveloped, and another side plot in which Pappi attempts to elope with his wished-for fiancé goes nowhere.

As a result, this "romantic comedy-drama" doesn't have enough romance, comedy, or drama. The soundtrack of the film—one miscalculation aside—is very good; too bad it's in the service of Sharma's weak script. There are only two reasons to see Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and both of them are Kangana Ranaut.

A mild spoiler alert follows: Perhaps after two tries Sharma will finally figure out the couple that clearly belongs together at the end. If he writes yet another sequel, I hope, unlike Tanu and Manu, he'll avoid repeating his mistake.

Update 26 May 2015: For another perspective on Tanu Weds Manu Returns, see Filmi Geek.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Attunement: Conversion experiences

Joni Mitchell: Blue

In her New Yorker essay "Some Notes on Attunement" (December 17, 2012), Zadie Smith writes about her intense dislike of Joni Mitchell. She describes hearing Blue at a party in college: "a piercing sound, a sort of wailing—a white woman, wailing, picking out notes in a non-sequence. Out of tune—or out of anything I understood at the time as 'tune.'" Her friends are astonished: "You don't like Joni?"

Years later, riding in a car with her husband, she hears something on the stereo: ". . .it was that bloody piping again, ranging over octaves, ignoring the natural divisions between musical bars, and generally annoying the hell out of me. . ."

This is the sort of thing she was hearing, or not hearing: Joni Mitchell singing "California":

And then, suddenly, something happened: "This is the effect that listening to Joni Mitchell has on me these days: uncontrollable tears. An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy—if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty…I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely." The album that evokes these powerful responses? Blue.

She describes this change as "a sudden, unexpected attunement." "Attunement" is an unusual word, but it can mean becoming responsive or receptive to something; its suggestion of harmonizing seems particularly appropriate for a musical epiphany.

Smith uses the word "attunement" to make a connection to the opening "Exordium" of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.* The Exordium is a sort of parable in which an ordinary man retells the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac in four different ways in order to try to understand it. But no matter how he approaches the story, he can never fully grasp its meaning. Kierkegaard's point is that sometimes there has to be a breakthrough, not so much in understanding, but in acceptance. As Smith puts it, "you need to lower your defenses."

Books, opera, and Bollywood

The subject of today's post is conversion experiences, an indifference or an outright aversion turning into a need, a craving. As longtime readers will know, I've had such experiences with individual works: the very first post on this blog was about my conversion experience with Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. This time I'm going to discuss how encounters with particular works opened me up to three different artistic forms: Victorian literature, opera, and Bollywood films.


Victorian literature: Like many of us, I suppose, I first encountered Victorian novels in college. And while Great Expectations gave me a welcome break from my science textbooks, I wasn't compelled during college or in the years afterwards to further explore the world of the Victorian novel. So I managed to make it to early middle age without reading Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, or Middlemarch.

And then I read Zadie Smith's essay on Middlemarch in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin Press, 2009), and, to paraphrase that essay, the scales fell from my eyes. It inspired me to immediately start reading Eliot's great novel; you can read my responses in "Three love problems: George Eliot's Middlemarch." Eliot led me to the amazingly rich novels of Anthony Trollope, a writer I had previously (and ignorantly) disdained for his overwhelming productivity, and then on to Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës, and Elizabeth Gaskell. I've also since delved into the 18th-century precursors of Jane Austen such as Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Eliza Haywood, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Samuel Richardson. In short, almost all the novel-reading I've done over the past five years has grown from the seed of Middlemarch, for which I will always be grateful to Changing My Mind.

Guillermo Resto as Aeneas and Mark Morris as Dido

Opera: I've written before about being intrigued by a PBS broadcast of Jean-Pierre Ponelle's film of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) when I was a teenager. But for more than a decade afterwards I felt that opera was a form that had nothing to do with me. First, there was the sound of operatic singing, aptly described by soprano Renée Fleming as "a 'cultivated scream'"**—it just didn't appeal to me. Then there were the characters: druid priestesses, mad Scottish brides, sleepwalking village maidens, and incestuous demigoddesses with spears and horned helmets. And finally there was all of opera's cultural baggage: it was, and ever had been, an art form produced by and for the rich; these were most definitely Not My People.

But then we saw the Mark Morris Dance Group's production of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The opera tells the story of Queen Dido's reckless love for the marooned Trojan warrior Aeneas, and her subsequent abandonment, despair and death. This opera was an oddity: it was by a composer we'd never heard of; it was composed in the 17th century, almost a hundred years before Le Nozze di Figaro; it was only an hour long; and it was sung in English. And—it was ravishing. 

After attending the opera—twice—we bought a recording of the work by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the group that had been the pit band for Morris's company. The role of Dido, sung by Judith Malafronte in the production we had seen, was sung on the recording by a singer then unknown to us, Lorraine Hunt. From that recording, here is Lorraine Hunt singing Dido's first aria, in which she tells her sister Belinda of the agitation she's felt since the arrival of the Trojan stranger:

The words (by librettist Nahum Tate) are, "Ah! Belinda, I am press'd / With torment not to be confess'd. / Peace and I are strangers grown; / I languish 'til my grief is known / Yet would not have it guess'd."

From that moment on, we sought out, almost obsessively, recordings and live performances of Baroque opera, starting with the wonderful Handel recordings by Lorraine Hunt and the Philharmonia Baroque. We moved backwards in time to Monteverdi's operas (Hunt gave a searing performance as Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea at SF Opera), and then forwards to late 19th- and early 20th-century operas. If we  still haven't yet come to a full appreciation of the sort of operas that feature druid priestesses and mad Scottish brides, perhaps it's just a matter of time.

Kal Ho Naa Ho

Bollywood movies: For many years I worked at a used bookstore. One of the great pleasures of the job was that while we were buying and selling books, we could play our favorite music in the background. A co-worker began bringing in compilations of songs from classic Bollywood soundtracks that he was picking up at the local flea market for two or three bucks apiece. The music was strange: the sound combined influences from both Indian and Western classical music, but also fifties and sixties pop, reggae, bossa nova. It was kind of cool, but also kind of grating, particularly the high-pitched women's voices. To my untutored ears they sounded piercing and shrill (I didn't know yet that the vocals on most of the tracks were supplied by only two women, Lata Mangeshkar or her younger sister Asha Bhosle), and, of course, I had no clue what they were singing about. As the weeks went by, "grating" began winning out over "cool."

But one Saturday morning I was flipping through TV channels looking for a sports event. Instead I happened across a clip of two lovers serenading one another in Hindi against a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks. We had stumbled across India Waves, a locally produced, super low-budget Bollywood clip show. We were bemused—the clips were rarely subtitled, so we could usually only guess at what was being sung, and were often shown incomplete or in the wrong aspect ratio—but we were also intrigued. We soon discovered other, similar shows such as Namaste America and Showbiz India, and found ourselves occasionally tuning in to one or another of these programs to pass the time on sleepy Saturday mornings.

Perhaps a year after we starting watching, clips from a new Bollywood movie set in New York City started to be shown. Bollywood songs filmed in Switzerland or New Zealand were strange enough, but seeing New York City in this context was somehow even stranger. But we liked the tunes—the high voices had ceased to bother us so much—and seeing the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park used as the backdrop for Bollywood songs gave us a new perspective on familiar landmarks.

At the time my partner worked in downtown San Francisco, and once a week or so as she was exiting her usual BART station would stop to have her shoes shined at a stand owned by a guy named Dwayne. Dwayne always had music playing on his boombox, and one day my partner heard something strange but familiar: a song from that Bollywood movie set in New York. When my partner recognized the song, Dwayne asked her if she wanted to see the movie—he had a DVD that he would be happy to lend her. So a few nights later my partner came home from work and pulled out Kal Ho Naa Ho. Somehow the idea of actually watching a full-length Bollywood film had never occurred to me; without any idea of what to expect, and having no points of comparison, we slipped the disc into the DVD player.

It quickly became clear that the songs we thought we knew from our clip shows had different meanings in the context of the film. An example is "Kuch To Hua Hai" (Something has happened). By itself it seems to be a light, pleasant song about the joys of falling in love ("pyar" in Hindi). Both Naina (Preity Zinta, voiced by Alka Yagnik) and Rohit (Saif Ali Khan, voiced by Shaan) are singing about the way their new love has transformed them. But we learn in the film that while Rohit is singing about his love for Naina, she is singing about her love for someone else. And neither is aware of the other's feelings; when they discover their mutual misapprehension, emotional devastation will follow.

At the end of the movie we were stunned, emotionally drained. Over the course of three hours, what had begun as a fast-paced urban romantic comedy had veered into pathos and tragedy and then back to comedy multiple times. And while there was a wedding, if the ending was happy why were our eyes filled with tears?

After Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title translates as "Tomorrow May Never Come"), we were completely hooked. Not only on the charismatic actors—particularly Shah Rukh Khan—but on a style of storytelling that was so unafraid of naked emotion. That was more than 10 years and 300 films ago; our appreciation of Indian films has since broadened into other regions, languages and time periods. But Kal Ho Naa Ho remains a touchstone for us—we still quote its dialogue to one another—and is often the movie we show curious friends to introduce them to Bollywood.

Coda: Joni Mitchell

To bring this post full circle, I have my own Joni Mitchell conversion experience to relate. I first encountered her songs during preteen summer camp sing-alongs: "Big Yellow Taxi," "Both Sides Now," "The Circle Game." But in high school and college, although I had friends who were big Joni fans, I thought her music was precious and hermetic. The lyrics of her most popular songs seemed to be about how bored she was while partying with other privileged people on Mykonos or in Spain, or about mean old daddies who somehow retained her affection, or about record company executives who wished they still lived in Paris. It was a world that didn't include me, or seem to want to. And so for several decades I stopped listening to, or caring about, her music.

And then about five years ago we rented a movie called Love Actually (2003, written and directed by Richard Curtis). The movie had a great cast—Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson—and was entertaining enough, but possessed an artificiality bordering on the meretricious. There was nothing "actual" about the relationships it portrayed; they were entirely contrived and (to borrow a Bollywood term) filmi.

But there was one moment that rang emotionally true. During a Christmas Eve gift exchange with her husband, Thompson's character receives as his "special and personal" gift...a Joni Mitchell CD. Having earlier found an expensive necklace in his coat pocket, she faces the sudden realization that the necklace was not intended for her, but for another woman. She excuses herself for a moment, and as she fights to keep her composure, a Joni Mitchell song comes on the soundtrack: "Both Sides Now." Only this isn't Mitchell's folky version from 1969. Instead, it's orchestrated, much slower and more somber, and the world-weary vocalist sounds like Ann Peebles or Sharon Jones. The raw vocals floating over the strings perfectly heighten the emotion of the scene in the film. As it turned out, the vocalist was indeed Joni Mitchell; the version was from her 2000 album Both Sides Now, the very album that Emma Thompson's character has just received as a gift.

Both Sides Now, with its lush arrangements of standards like "You're My Thrill" and "At Last," and its reworkings of the title song (from Clouds) and "A Case of You" (from Blue) has become a favorite album in our household. Decades after deciding that I no longer needed to listen to Joni Mitchell, a few moments in an otherwise forgettable film made me realize the importance of re-evaluating my judgments, revisiting my conclusions, and trying always to remain open to changing my mind.

* "Attunement" comes from the translation of Alastair Hannay, Penguin, 2005.

** Renee Fleming, The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, Penguin, 2004, p. 40.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The suffering woman: Meena Kumari

"I gave my heart to one who loves another"
Dil Apna aur Preet Parai (Hopeless love, 1960, directed by Kishore Sahu and gorgeously photographed by Josef Wirsching) features Meena Kumari as Karuna, a young nurse in her first hospital assignment. Karuna's commitment, competence and compassion soon endear her to even the most cantankerous patients—and to the dedicated young Dr. Sushil Verma (Raaj Kumar). Long hours together caring for patients and sharing late-night coffee breaks soon lead to feelings of more than professional admiration.

We discover, though, that Sushil's mother (Pratima Devi) has already promised him in marriage to the daughter of wealthy family friend Lala Vasant Rai. When Sushil's father died, Lalaji paid for Sushil's medical education in Europe. The unstated expectation was that once Sushil became established, he would marry Lalaji's daughter Kusum (Nadira). And, on a family visit to Lalaji and Kusum in Kashmir, Sushil is emotionally blackmailed by his mother to go through with the ceremony:

Or else I'll leave this house as a corpse

Karuna's hopes are crushed when she sees Sushil arrive home with his new bride. To her deep chagrin, she is called on to serenade the new couple during a moonlight boat ride with the hospital staff:

Meena Kumari's playback singer for "Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh" is Lata Mangeshkar; the music is by Shankar Jaikishan, with lyrics by Shailendra.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sushil and Kusum are profoundly incompatible. Kusum can't accept Sushil's meager salary, long hours, and close working relationship with Karuna. Kusum is used to getting what she wants, and she is angered and frustrated by the constraints her new circumstances impose on her desires.

One night one of the hospital's long-term patients, Girdhari (Om Prakash), has another of his periodic crises. As she's done before, Karuna calls Sushil's home to summon him to the hospital. But this time she's told by Kusum that Sushil is out. In reality, the couple has a reservation at a local dinner club that Kusum doesn't want to miss. While Sushil and Kusum are sipping their soup and watching an item number by Helen, Girdhari is dying. When Sushil discovers that Kusum lied to him about Karuna's call, he explodes in rage and slaps her; she smacks him back and threatens to kill him and Karuna. She returns to her father the next day, despite Maaji's pleas:

Don't break up your home

The way would seem clear for Karuna and Sushil to finally acknowledge their feelings for one another, but Karuna cannot forget that Sushil remains married. She avoids him until his younger sister Munni (Kumari Naaz) cajoles her into visiting Maaji as she used to. It's Diwali, and as the devoted Karuna prepares the lamps, Maaji suddenly realizes how great a mistake she's made:

How blind I was

When Sushil returns with sparklers and firecrackers for Munni, she asks the question that's on everyone's mind:

Brother, why didn't you marry her?

Karuna's emotions are in turmoil; in the melancholy "Dil Apna aur Preet Parai," as celebratory fireworks explode all around her, she decides that she must keep her feelings for Sushil forever unexpressed:

When Kusum suddenly returns, the stage is set for a final battle for Sushil between the good woman dressed in white and the bad woman dressed in black, and the film veers over the melodramatic edge. But up until this point, Meena Kumari's performance is heartrending.

The suffering woman
Meena Kumari frequently portrayed women who were abandoned, mistreated, or who loved without hope. I've only seen a few of her films, but they have all been memorable. In Baiju Bawra (Baiju the mad one, 1952), her first starring role, she played Gauri, who chooses to drown with her long-absent lover rather than saving herself. In Parineeta (The married woman, 1953) she played Lalita, a young woman who falls in love with the son of the rich man next door; class and caste differences, familial hostilities and mutual misunderstandings separate them.

In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962) she played Chhoti Bahu, the neglected wife of a rich, dissipated zamindar; desperate, she begins to drink heavily every night in the forlorn hope that her husband will keep her company rather than consorting with his dissolute friends and dancing girls. And finally in Pakeezah (The pure one, 1972) she played the courtesan Sahibjaan, who ultimately leaves her lover because of the dishonor she feels she brings to their union. In the end, she performs at his wedding to another woman; when a lamp shatters, she dances on the broken glass, leaving a symbolic trail of bloody footprints across the white cloth on which she's dancing. You don't need to know anything about Meena Kumari's personal unhappiness and tragic early death to find these films to be powerfully affecting.

Each of these four films is considered a classic of Hindi cinema. Meena Kumari won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for three of them (the exception being Pakeezah), and a fourth award for Kaajal (1965). Kumari's performance makes Dil Apna aur Preet Parai very much worth seeing. Thanks to Edu Productions, you can watch it on YouTube in a more complete print with far better picture and subtitle quality than the execrable Tips DVD that is circulating on certain rental services. 

For an excellent review of Dil Apna aur Preet Parai that includes comments on the film from Edwina, the actress and dancer who played one of the hospital's nursing staff, see MemsaabStory.

Update 31 July 2016: Edu Productions' excellent-quality videos are apparently no longer available on YouTube. I have embedded and linked to another version of the film, but recommend viewing Edu Productions' version if you can find it.