Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Favorites of 2015: Bollywood

Meena Kumari in Dil Apna aur Preet Parai, my favorite classic Bollywood movie of 2015 (see below)
Contemporary Bollywood

Although I've seen well over 300 Indian films, 2015 was the year I saw my first Indian film in a theater. It wasn't because I couldn't be bothered to get off my couch: before this year, theatrical showings of Indian films in this area were almost entirely confined to the South and East Bay, where there are large NRI communities. So showings of first-run Indian films in theaters that don't require us to make lengthy round trips are a very welcome development.

My first experience was pretty fun, even though the movie, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, wasn't great (see "The sequel most in need of a sequel" below). The audience laughed uproariously in surprising places; clearly, my dependence on subtitles meant that I was missing out on a lot of the cultural context of the characters, situations and dialogue. It was a good reminder that my experience as a non-Indian, non-Hindi-speaking viewer of Bollywood must necessarily be partial.

Our nearby theaters are still very inconsistent about what Indian films they offer and how they are shown. The Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt film Shaandaar (Fabulous), for example, despite being produced by Karan Johar's Dharma Productions and distributed by Fox, was not shown locally. And when my partner and I tried to see Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (A treasure called Prem (Love)) one Sunday, we discovered that the only showing for the next three hours was in XD and cost $16 (Rs 1100) per ticket. Alas, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo remains unseen by this household.

So the erratic availability of Indian films in theaters and on DVD rental services like Netflix means that my viewing tends to lag film release dates by six months or more. (Yes, we'll clearly have to move to streaming, but we haven't yet.) As a result my favorite film of 2015 was actually released in 2014.

Favorite film: Queen (starring Kangana Ranaut, Lisa Haydon, and Rajkummar Rao; story and direction by Vikas Bahl)

On the day before her wedding—almost literally while the henna is drying on her hands—the shy, sheltered Rani ("Queen" in Hindi) is abruptly dumped by her London-returned fiancé Vijay (Rajkummar Rao). Rani decides to go on her honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam by herself; adventures—some heartwarming, some cringe-worthy—and self-discovery ensue. Including Rani's first intoxicating, regret-inducing encounter with alcohol, in the company of free spirit Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon):

Kangana Ranaut gives a highly believable performance as an ordinary young woman tentatively beginning to discover her inner strength and resourcefulness. She's the main reason to see this modest and likable film.

Read the full post: Queen

Honorable mention: PK (starring Aamir Khan, Anushka Sharma, and Sushant Singh Rajput; written by Abhijat Joshi and Rajkumar Hirani, and directed by Hirani)

PK involves two interlinked stories. The first is that of PK (Aamir Khan), an alien who has been sent to Earth to understand human culture. No sooner has he landed, though, than he's stranded: the device he needs to signal his ship gets stolen (lesson #1 in human culture). Through trial and error—mainly error—he begins to figure out our confusing and contradictory conventions about clothes, money, gender roles, and communication. When everyone tells him to seek God's help, he goes in search of Him/Her—but at every house of God he encounters only humans, with all our selfishness, greed, gullibility, fear, and anger.

The second story is that of Jaggu (Anushka Sharma), a young Hindi woman who is studying in Bruges. There she meets Sarfaraz (Sushant Singh Rajput), a Pakistani Muslim, and falls in love. Pressured by her family, Jaggu demands that Sarfaraz marry her the next day. But Sarfaraz doesn't show up at the church, and Jaggu, heartbroken, returns to Dehli. There she becomes a reporter for a local TV station, where she encounters PK and aids him in his quest to recover his device. As they spend time together, PK begins to experience some unfamiliar feelings:

Towards the end of the movie certain implausibilities in the plot—and no, I don't mean a character who is an alien—become apparent. And the pluralistic message of the film gets stated a bit too bluntly—and no, the irony that a film that questions religious divisions does so by getting preachy did not escape me. But in the main PK is charming, and so is Aamir Khan's deadpan, wide-eyed embodiment of the naïve and good-hearted title character.

The sequel most in need of a sequel: Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015, starring Kangana Ranaut, Kangana Ranaut, R. Madhavan, the largely wasted Jimmy Shergill, and Deepak Dobriyal; written by Himanshu Sharma and directed by Anand L. Rai)

At one point in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Manu's friend Pappi tells him, "You're repeating a mistake!"

Indeed. In the original movie, Tanu Weds Manu (2011), NRI doctor Manu (Madhavan) returns to India to look for a bride and encounters the free-spirited Tanu (Kangana Ranaut), who already has a boyfriend: street thug Raja (Jimmy Shergill). As I wrote in my post "Who cares if Tanu weds Manu?":  "It's possible to understand why the quiet, dutiful Manu might be attracted to the vivacious Tanu: she embodies freedoms that he has never allowed himself. But Himanshu Sharma's script doesn't show us enough of what might attract Tanu to Manu, or 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."

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 before their marriage: they have nothing in common. They divorce, and before you can say "rebound" Manu meets Kusum (Ranaut in a double role), a college student who bears a striking resemblance to Tanu.

After stalking courting Kusum, Manu proposes. There's only one impediment: Kusum is already Tanu's old boyfriend Raja. So when Tanu and Raja crash Kusum and Manu's wedding, the stage is set for a showdown:

Only, we don't want either Tanu or Kusum to wind up with Manu, who needs to take a long look at himself before he'll deserve to be with anyone. Once again, the thought "This is such a bad idea" was inescapable during the final scene. I can only hope that there will be a sequel to the sequel. Perhaps after two tries writer Sharma will finally figure out the couple that clearly belongs together at the end.

Read the full post: "Repeating a mistake": Tanu Weds Manu Returns

Classic Bollywood

Favorite film: Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (Hopeless love, 1960, starring Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar, Nadira, and Pratima Devi; written by Madhusudan and Kishore Sahu, gorgeously photographed by Josef Wirsching and directed by Sahu)

In Dil Apna aur Preet Parai Meena Kumari is 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.

But Sushil's mother (Pratima Devi) has already promised him in marriage to Kusum (Nadira), the daughter of wealthy family friend. In the melancholy "Dil Apna aur Preet Parai," as celebratory Diwali fireworks explode all around her, Karuna decides that she must keep her feelings for Sushil forever unexpressed:

While the film's final scenes—a battle for Sushil between the good woman dressed in white and the bad woman dressed in black—veer over the melodramatic edge, Meena Kumari's subtle and heartrending performance as Karuna is unforgettable.

Read the full post: The suffering woman: Meena Kumari

Other Favorites of 2015:
Opera and other music
Hollywood and other movies

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