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.

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