Sunday, November 20, 2016

Catching up with last year: Dolly ki Doli, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Tamasha, and Kapoor and Sons

Four films from last year that we're just managing to catch up with now:

Dolly ki Doli (Dolly's bridal palanquin, 2015; directed by Abhishek Dogra, written by Dogra and Uma Shankar Singh): Many Bollywood movies end with a lavish wedding. Dolly ki Doli begins with one, complete with an item number by the ageless Malaika Arora:

The music is by Sajid-Wajid, with lyrics by Irfan Kamal; the playback singers are Mamta Sharma and Wajid.

Cut to the wedding night at the home of the wealthy Sonu (Rajkummar Rao, who played another slimy fiancé in Queen). The demure bride Dolly (Sonam Kapoor) brings glasses of milk to her husband and in-laws (Rajesh Sharma and Gulfam Khan):

 Clearly none of these folks have ever seen Hitchcock's Suspicion:

When the Sehrawat family groggily emerges from their drug-induced sleep the next day, they discover that their house has been ransacked. It soon becomes clear that Sonu is only the latest victim in a series of "runaway bride" heists pulled by Dolly and the gang posing as her family. And indeed Dolly soon has another dupe (Varun Sharma) in her sights. But police inspector Robin Singh (Pulkit Samrat) is hot on her trail—and it turns out that Robin and Dolly have a certain history...

Sonam Kapoor has developed into a pretty good comedienne, and Dolly ki Doli has its moments. But disbelief becomes increasingly difficult to suspend in the second half: how would Dolly have been able to make it through multiple weddings without being photographed? Would she and her crew really be gullible enough to think that a poster in the marketplace would be the way a prince (a cameo by Nawab Saif Ali Khan) would go about finding a bride? And although the vanity, faithlessness and greed of the men she encounters would seem to provide a more-than-sufficient motive for her actions, why would she instead offer the explanation "this is just the way I am"? Here's hoping that writer/director Dogra puts his next script through a few more revisions before rolling the cameras.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015; directed by Dibakar Banerjee, written by Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar, based on stories by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay): This film was highly recommended by Beth Loves Bollywood, and I had long been meaning to see it. While the widely testified appeal of its star Sushant Singh Rajput to women isn't apparent to me, I'm willing to accept it as a given. So I approached the film with a certain amount of anticipation.

The positives, sort of: the film has a very distinctive look. Atmospherically photographed by Nikos Andritsakis and art-directed to a fault by Sachin Bhoir, the film features a loving—perhaps too loving—recreation of Calcutta in the 1940s. Calcutta in 1943 actually suffered from a severe famine; in Bengal as a whole (at the time, of course, including East Bengal/Bangladesh) millions died from starvation and disease.

But not a trace of these events appears in the film. Instead, it features vintage cars (were there that many late-model cars driving around impoverished, starving Calcutta in the wartime 1940s, when petrol must have been in short supply? Just asking), streetcars, buildings, signs, furniture, even paan boxes: Bhoir's props, sets and exteriors display a mind-boggling level of period detail:

The art direction and production design, though, occasionally call too much attention to themselves and distract from the story. As an example, when our hero goes to a closed chemical factory to search for clues, the place looks like it's been shut down for decades instead of just a few months:

But remarkable as the art direction is, that attention to period detail is entirely missing from Sneha Khanwalkar's soundtrack, which every so often incongruously erupts in rap-metal.

That's not the only jarring element in the film: in the character of Anguri Devi (Swastika Mukherjee), Banerjee plays with femme fatale and dragon lady stereotypes. But when he decides to undermine those stereotypes towards the end of the film, he does so in a way that is hardly believable. (Would a character this worldly and hard-bitten really have acted so stupidly?) Satyawati (Divya Menon), the virtuous good girl to Anguri's bad girl, has hardly any screen time and (as Beth notes) ultimately becomes a clichéd damsel in distress.

And the ending: Detective Bakshy calls all of the suspects together, and of course they all come, and then the villain reveals himself and confesses all. Perhaps this ending is true to Bandyopadhyay's stories; nonetheless, it seems like a creaky contrivance. As does the final sequence in the film, where the villain escapes in order to leave open the possibility of a sequel. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is stylishly filmed and well-performed by its cast; alas, with such a problematic script that's not quite enough.

Tamasha (Spectacle, 2015; written and directed by Imtiaz Ali):

—There's this Imtiaz Ali movie...
—It features this wild, Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
—Don't tell me: played by Deepika Padukone?
—Yes! She's spontaneous and fun, loves to drink, party, and have no-strings-attached sex with the hero.
—Right. In fact, she's not just willing to have sex without commitment, she actively rejects the very idea of commitment. And so does the hero. Because commitment's a drag, and lack of commitment is freedom!
—But then she discovers that she loves him after all.
—Got it. That's Love Aaj Kal.
—I was thinking of another one.
—Then you can only mean Cocktail!
—Ummm...sorry...another one?
—You can't be serious: is that the plot of Tamasha?
—No one would make the same film over and over again, would they? Particularly with women characters so patently the projection of some male fantasy?
—Well, the tagline is "Why always the same story?"
—That has to be deliberately ironic...doesn't it?
—With Imtiaz you can never be sure.
—I'm beginning to think that I'm permanently allergic to Imtiaz Ali movies.
—You were expecting maturity of vision? In this appalling movie Ranbir Kapoor needs to rediscover his inner child (almost literally) and create a theatrical spectacle about the soul-destroying world of modern work. Clearly this will be shattering news to all of us. Meanwhile Deepika, his catalyst, his muse, gets to cry, look on and applaud.
—Deepika Padukone can pretty much do anything, though. Even carry off these two-dimensional male-fantasy characters.
—Yes. But wouldn't it be nice if she didn't have to ever again?

Kapoor & Sons (2016; directed by Shakun Batra and written by Batra and Ayesha Devitre Dhillon): The DVD cover proclaims that this is "Karan Johar's Kapoor & Sons," and there's no mistaking the KJo house style. Set among the privileged, glossily filmed (though a hand-held camera is used by Batra for heightened "realism"), featuring bitter family conflicts and tearful reconciliations, Johar's films are highly calculated and emotionally manipulative. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're not often effective.

Chief among this movie's virtues is its cast of highly sympathetic actors. Rishi Kapoor is very convincing as a 90-year-old dadu whose birthday brings the scattered members of his family back together. His son Harsh (Rajat Kapoor, the molesting uncle in Monsoon Wedding) is emotionally estranged from his volatile wife Sunita (Ratna Pathak). Their sons Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) and Rahul (Fawad Khan), each living abroad, are also estranged: Arjun resents his brother's accomplishments and has never felt that he measured up to his parents' expectations, while Rahul, the successful "perfect son," is harboring a deep secret. The always-delightful Alia Bhatt is Tia Malik, a young woman who finds herself attracted to both brothers.

The movie is structured around the birthday party and attempts to take a family photo, both of which end in disaster when long-festering resentments surface and secrets are unwillingly revealed. And then, tragedy strikes...

The movie is full of, if not overstuffed with, emotional scenes. But undermining the emotion is the screenwriters' too-frequent tendency to go for the thudding cliché:

Perhaps these lines, and others like them that I didn't include, seem a little less banal in Hindi (though some of them are spoken in English). Still, the screenwriters' recourse to commonplaces at key moments strikes this viewer as a failure of imagination. Full props to them, though, for creating a gay character who is neither a campy caricature nor a tragic victim.

Fawad Khan is not just a pretty face and gym-toned body: he does an excellent job with the difficult role of Rahul. And for him to take on this character was an act of courage. It's impossible to watch him in this movie, though, without thinking of Johar's recent pledge not to use Pakistani actors in his future films. The ban was initially promulgated by the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association as a response to the September 18 attack against an Indian army base in Uri, Kashmir. The ban was also a tacit show of support for the pronouncements of the Hindu nationalist group Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which on September 23 ordered all Pakistani actors and film technicians to leave India within 48 hours or "we shall push them out."

At first Johar did not endorse the ban, saying that the solution to terrorism "cannot involve banning talent or art...We make movies, we spread love." However, after threats by the MNS to prevent screenings of his latest film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which also stars Fawad, Johar reluctantly joined the boycott, saying "For me, my country comes first…Going forward, I would like to say that of course I wouldn’t engage with talent from the neighbouring country given the circumstance."

Banning actors from "the neighbouring country" seems not only unjust (as Salman Khan has said, actors are "artistes not terrorists") but, for those who seek peace and mutual understanding, counterproductive. Clearly, though, great pressure, including threats, is being brought to bear on actors and filmmakers. I don't think it's my place to judge, but I can't help being deeply disappointed by what seems a short-sighted and unworthy response to this situation by many in the Indian film industry.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Seasons of blood: The Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio De Giovanni

Maurizio de Giovanni. Photo: La Repubblica

Naples, 1931. It is Year Nine of Mussolini's Fascist rule. Men in black uniforms stride through the streets, embodying an ever-present threat of violence. Meanwhile, police inspector Commissario Luigi Ricciardi and his loyal partner Brigadier Raffaele Maione try to avoid politics and do their jobs. But solving crimes against the great and the downtrodden inevitably brings them into contact, and sometimes conflict, with the power of the national regime. A regime that is reaching deeper into ordinary citizens' daily lives:
"Lucia wasn't interested in politics, as far as she cared one party was as good as another, but now things were starting to change. Every day she heard reports of a beating, an injury, an arrest. People said that spies were everywhere, that if you said a harsh word about a public official, or a government institution, there were people who would hurry to inform on you and someone would quickly come calling for an explanation of what you had said. Lucia was convinced that it was best to keep your mouth shut and mind your own business." (Viper, p. 207)
The historical setting is one of the most unusual and compelling elements of Maurizio De Giovanni's Commissario Ricciardi novels. Each novel takes place during a particular time of year, and De Giovanni vividly renders the characteristic sights, sounds and smells of Naples (including its seasonal festivals, cuisine and other traditions).

Another unusual element of the books is the presence of the supernatural. From the time he was a boy, Ricciardi has seen visions of those who have recently died, and heard their final thoughts. It is a curse that has blighted his life, not only because he is continually beset by images of horror—gruesome descriptions of children hit by cars, drowned fishermen, love suicides and the victims of industrial accidents recur throughout the novels—but also because his inability to share this affliction has condemned him to a life of solitude.

At first I had mixed feelings about Ricciardi's special powers of perception; these visions of the dead would seem to give a detective a distinct advantage when trying to track down a murderer. It works that way only obliquely, however:
"The Deed, as Ricciardi called his curse to perceive the last sorrow and pain of the dead, almost never helped him to uncover the way that death took place. It was just an emotion, a simple manifestation of the dying person's suffering upon being removed from this life: the final separation. Like a scream, or a sigh, or a regret. Or all these things together." (By My Hand, p. 174) 
Ricciardi lives with Rosa, his elderly tata (that is, his former nanny and now housekeeper), in a modest apartment across the street from that of the Columbo family. The Columbo's eldest daughter, Enrica, is not a head-turning beauty, but she has a gentleness of nature and sweetness of disposition that Ricciardi finds deeply appealing. The domestic contentment that she and her family represent are a profound relief from the grim realities he encounters in his work. Each night from his bedroom window he watches her embroidering; she is aware of and welcomes his gaze, but both are too reticent to express their feelings.

Matters between Enrica and Ricciardi are complicated by the presence of the gorgeous Livia Vezzi, the widow of the murder victim in the first novel in the series, who falls for Ricciardi and pursues him aggressively but fruitlessly. Meanwhile, Enrica's mother tries to arrange a match for her with the callow son of a family acquaintance. One of the poignant pleasures of reading the novels is watching the tragicomedy of Enrica and Ricciardi's halting attempts to reach out to one another, and how they are undermined by misunderstandings on both sides.

Another pleasure of the series is watching De Giovanni stretch further beyond the stylistic conventions of the mystery novel with each successive book. The narratives become more layered, and increasingly there are chapters that feature cinematic intercutting between scenes, characters, and points of view, often unidentified. It is only late in the novels that we can determine from the internal evidence whose perspectives we have heard at each point. The recurring characters also become richer and more complex over the course of series.

One thing that may frustrate dedicated mystery fans is that while the setups are often fairly traditional—a corpse is discovered and there are no witnesses to the killing—the murders are not generally solved by Poirotvian ratiocination. (Indeed, reasoning about those who might have murderous motives generally just multiplies the number of plausible suspects.) Instead the crime is usually solved by a flash of insight on Ricciardi's part that suddenly enables the pieces of the puzzle to come together. These flashes of insight sometimes involve characters who are a minor presence in the book before the final pages. Whether you see this as a violation of the unstated rules of the mystery novel or as a realistic depiction of how we actually think about and solve problems will depend on your perspective (I am in the latter camp).

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2007; English edition: Europa Editions, 2012, translated by Anne Milano Appel) is the first novel in the series, and is also the entry that is most indebted to traditional mystery-novel conventions. The body of a famous tenor is found in his locked dressing room backstage at the opera house during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. The final utterance of his spirit is a line from an aria in Cavalleria Rusticana: "Io sangue voglio" (translated as "I will have vengeance," although its literal meaning is "I long for blood"). The ultimate solution of the mystery depends not so much on clues from the crime scene, but on an understanding of the operas that were being performed—an understanding helpfully provided by an opera-loving priest, Don Pierino, who will reappear in later novels in the series.
"'It wouldn't hurt, maybe, if you were to listen to some opera. It would do you good to see how beautiful a feeling, its expression, can be.'
Surprisingly, don Pierino saw a shadow of immense sorrow in Ricciardi's green eyes. Not a recollection, but rather a condition. As if, just for a moment, the policeman had opened a window on the mysterious territory of his soul.
'I know about feelings, Father. And one can also have too much of them.'" (p. 69)

Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2008; English edition: Europa Editions, 2013, this and subsequent novels in the series translated by Anthony Shugaar) features the return of the beautiful widow Livia Vezzi and the beginning of her determined romantic siege of Ricciardi. He spends his nights trying to dodge her while spending his days trying to solve the murder of an elderly fortune-teller, who, it turns out, did a brisk business on the side as a moneylender of last resort. Was she murdered by someone who couldn't pay back a loan, or by someone whose secrets she had extracted and used for blackmail? The investigation leads Ricciardi and Maione into the vicoli (alleyways) and bassi (ground-floor apartments) of the poor, as well as into the mansions of the rich.
"Even at that time of night, when the shops and cafés were closed, Via Toledo swarmed with both the living and the dead...The real name of that street was 'borderline.' A boundary dividing two populaces as different as night and day, pitted against each other in a tacit, unending war...Power and the abuse of power, honor and pride, comfort and envy: all of them the spawn of hunger and love." (p. 41)

Everyone in Their Place: The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2009; English edition: Europa Editions, 2013) involves the killing of the Duchess of Camparino, the beautiful second wife of the ailing and elderly Duke. Behind the facade of upper-class propriety, Ricciardi and Maione find a tangled history of love affairs, class resentment, and ties to the Fascist leadership. One of the suspects is finally brought to confess—but is she really the murderer? This novel also features Ricciardi's first close encounters with the secret police, including a highly implausible personal revelation by its mysterious leader. A bit of anachronism, though, can be easily forgiven when De Giovanni's fictional world is otherwise so rich.
"He felt like an emotional apprentice. At his age, when most men have already had wives, children, and countless clandestine or frankly commercial sexual encounters, all he knew about love was the snips of monologues spouted by the various cadavers that he'd met. As he was walking in the shaft of light from the setting sun, he thought to himself that love is an infected root that seeks out the best way to survive: a fatal illness with an incredibly long course that causes addiction, making the victim prefer suffering to well-being, grief to tranquility, uncertainty to stability." (pp. 263-264)

The Day of the Dead: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Fandango libri, 2010; English edition: Europa Editions, 2014): Ricciardi and Maione are summoned when a scugnizzo, a street kid, is found dead with his loyal dog sitting nearby; the boy had ingested poisoned rat bait. But Ricciardi looks in vain for the ghostly image of the dead child uttering his final thoughts. He realizes that the child must have died elsewhere and been moved to where he was found. Who would have moved the body, and why? The investigation leads to an orphanage run by the brutal and exploitative priest Don Antonio, who is protected by highly-placed connections in a church that is all too cozy with the Fascist government. Intense pressure also comes down from Ricciardi's bosses to wrap up the case before a visit to Naples by Edda Mussolini, Benito's daughter, who happens to be a close friend of Livia Vezzi. In keeping with the autumnal setting, this is the bleakest novel in the series, and its ending is suitably unsettled. There is no satisfying resolution or restoration of the moral order; in the case of violence against children, De Giovanni implies, no neat moral restitution may be possible.
"But the war that you fought, he mused, looking down at the body on the table, was one of neither glory nor grandeur. It was a war for survival, a war to live long enough to see the sun come up the next day or to wake up to the feeling of rain on your skin. A war for bread, a war against the cold, a war for a dry place to sleep...the war of life." (p. 52)

By My Hand: The Christmas of Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2011; English edition: Europa Editions, 2014) contrasts the festive season with the investigation of a brutal killing. A corrupt Fascist official and his wife are savagely murdered in their apartment, and in trying to solve the case Ricciardi and Maione must navigate a political minefield. Christmas, though, is also a time of desperation for those living on the margins:
"December twenty-third is the last chance. The verdummari, the fruit and vegetable vendors, know it, sitting with their weary, worried gaze in the center of their elaborate installations...The chill is welcome, because it wards off the scourge of insects, but what hasn't been sold by the twenty-third runs a serious risk of lying there and rotting;  that's why sales are being called out to the passersby in such pleading tones, in sharp contrast to the triumphant calling of their wares on the past few mornings, when the vendors' voices resounded cheerful and bright, summoning the housewives to make their purchases.
Now they're begging, supplicating: Come buy, come buy. Take pity.
Because December twenty-third is the last chance." (pp. 277-278)

Viper: No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2012; English edition: Europa Editions, 2015): A notorious prostitute is found suffocated in her bedroom in the city's most famous brothel, Il Paradiso. But the perfumed indolence of the brothel hides a veritable maelstrom of jealousies, rivalries, and resentments. Meanwhile, Dr. Bruno Modo, the ascerbic medical examiner, has a confrontation with a group of blackshirts and is kidnapped from his hospital. Ricciardi and Maione must work against the clock to rescue Modo before he is sent to a concentration camp on a desolate island from which he may never return.
"'Rosaria was beautiful, and she was becoming more beautiful with every day. No one who came through our farms, the merchants who came to buy broccoli, the butchers who brought us their hogs to fatten, could look at her without being tempted to touch. I was sixteen years old and she was fourteen, and I can't tell you how many times the others had to hold me back, to keep me from winding up in prison for stabbing someone. But now I understand that such a beautiful woman can't be born in a place like that. It's not right. Beauty, Commissa', it's something you have to be able to afford.'" (pp. 62-63)

The Bottom of Your Heart: Inferno for Commissario Ricciardi (Italian edition: Einaudi Editore, 2014; English edition: Europa Editions, 2015): From Il Paradiso to inferno: Naples is suffering a searing mid-summer heatwave as the Festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel approaches. But as well as the oppressive heat, it is the inferno of human passions from which Ricciardi and Maione can find no respite. A renowned obstetrician, Professor Iovine, has plummeted from his office window to his death on the pavement seventy feet below. Was the murderer the gangster whose wife died in childbirth? The jealous lover of the professor's mistress? Or the son of a professional rival whom Iovine had betrayed and ruined? Meanwhile, Brigadier Maione is tormented by doubts about the faithfulness of his wife, Lucia, who is spending her afternoons in an apartment building that houses a notorious playboy.
"The professor is falling.
He's falling, and as he falls, he spreads his arms wide, as if trying to embrace the scorching summer night that stretches out to catch him.
He's falling, and since the brief struggle knocked all the air out of his lungs, his body now pointlessly demands that he take a deep breath, even though the new lungful of oxygen won't do him a bit of good, won't even have the chance to make it into his bloodstream...
The professor is falling. And as he does, his thoughts shatter into a thousand tiny shards...One of those shards catches a flicker of love.
If he could only linger over the topic, the professor would muse on the strangeness of love. It makes you do such strange things, things you would never usually do; love sometimes makes you ridiculous, and other times fills your life with color. Love creates and love destroys, he would say, employing one of his proverbial figures of speech. Love can even throw you out a window." (pp. 10-12)

Update 26 November 2016: The eighth novel in the Commissario Ricciardi series, Glass Souls, will be published by Europa Editions in 2017.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

In memoriam: Kay Starr

Image of Kay Starr: Memphis Music Hall of Fame

Kay Starr died Thursday in Los Angeles at the age of 94. She was a singer who ignored genre boundaries, singing big band jazz, country (her 1952 hit "Wheel of Fortune" could have been sung by Patsy Cline), and even proto-rock 'n' roll.

In memoriam: From the Rita Hayworth film Down to Earth (1947) the song "Kiss of the Muse," in which the amazing Starr voices Terpsichore (portrayed by the sassy Adele Jergens). They don't, and couldn't, make them like this any more: