Friday, June 23, 2017

Bollywood and beyond mini-reviews

Finding Fanny (2014) and Piku (2015): Two road-trip movies with Deepika Padukone

Finding Fanny wants us to remember that in any adventure it's not the destination that matters, but the journey. If you don't find this message to be stunningly original, then on your own journey you may want to steer clear.

Ferdie (Naserrudin Shah) has kept a torch burning for decades for his first love, Fanny. When the letter in which he confessed his feelings to her is returned undelivered after 40 years, his young friend Angie (Padukone) decides that he needs to find Fanny and tell her his feelings in person. Angie, widowed on the day of her wedding to Gabo (a very brief cameo by Ranveer Singh), recruits a motley crew including her mother-in-law Rosie (Dimple Kapadia), randy artist Don Pedro (Pankaj Kapur), and Savio (Arjun Kapoor), who has nursed a hopeless love for Angie since childhood, and who happens to own a (barely) running car.

As I've noted previously, it's a thin line between whimsical and annoying, and for me Fanny crossed that line repeatedly. The film's attempts at black humor are jarring, and Dimple Kapadia's prosthetic rump (and the relentless attention paid to it by Don Pedro and the camera) is demeaning. Wikipedia defines a shaggy-dog story "as an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax or a pointless punchline." That's a pretty good description of writer/director Homi Adajania's movie. Although this household finds Deepika Padukone to be always watchable, ultimately Finding Fanny strains for both humor and pathos.

Speaking of straining, Piku is a road-trip movie that asks the great Amitabh Bachchan and his excellent supporting cast to spend 90 minutes making constipation jokes. Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi's story, such as it is, is about learning to value legacies from the past and to enjoy the moment. Or to put it another way, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.

Once again Deepika is the best thing about the movie. This time she plays an exasperated career woman accompanying her irascible father Bhashkor (Bachchan) on a road trip to their ancestral home in Kolkata. But for this household even Deepika's presence wasn't enough to rescue Piku from its relentless focus on Bhashkor's bowels. And yes, constipation is a metaphor. If you don't find this stunningly original, then you may want to let it go.

Fan (2016)

SRK's performance in a dual role in Fan is astonishing. He is creepily effective as the unhinged Gaurav, an obsessive lookalike fan of the Bollywood superstar Aryan Khanna (SRK again). Gaurav has built his entire life and identity around his screen idol; of course, disillusionment must follow, and Gaurav must punish Khanna for not living up to his expectations.

We've seen SRK play deranged characters before. In fact, Gaurav is a bit of a mashup of two of his early characters: Rahul, the psychotic stalker of Juhi Chawla's "K-K-K-Kiran" in Darr (Fear, 1993), and Ajay, the revenge-seeker in the thriller Baazigar (Deceiver, 1993). If you remember those movies you'll know that Fan isn't likely to end well for Gaurav.

Even more remarkable than his uncanny performance as Gaurav, though, is SRK's Khanna. It wouldn't seem to be much of a stretch for him to play a driven actor who has worked his way up to superstardom through a relentless work ethic; after all, Khanna's story is SRK's. But what's surprising is that Khanna's affable, charming persona is shown to be just another role that he assumes when necessary. It's a striking (and demystifying) portrayal of the pressures and constraints of stardom.

When rising Bollywood hero "Sid Kapoor" (Taher Shabbir, who is made up to look like Hrithik Roshan, and whose name evokes Ranbir Kapoor, one of whose early successes was the movie Wake Up Sid (2009)) says that Khanna's days as King of Bollywood are done, Gaurav cons his way into Kapoor's trailer and violently extracts a video apology from him. Instead of being grateful, as Gaurav believes he should be, Khanna has Gaurav arrested and beaten. Gaurav's excessive love turns to a burning desire for revenge.

The second half of Fan does powerfully convey how trapped Khanna feels by a monster he has helped to create, but it also devolves into lengthy chase scenes and fights. SRK is utterly convincing as both characters, and the fight and chase scenes must have required some skillful filmmaking. But in the end the thrills become wearisome. Fan is for SRK fans only.

Heaven on Earth (2008)

This is the fourth film in writer/director Deepa Mehta's Elements series, after Fire (1996), Earth: 1947 (1998), and Water (2005). Given the renown of the first three films in the series and the presence of Preity Zinta in the cast, it was a bit puzzling/concerning that the final installment was never released in theaters or on DVD in the US (at least, not so far as I've been able to determine).

One reason might be the relentless grimness of the story. A marriage is arranged for Chand ("Moon," played by Zinta) with Rocky (Vansh Bhardwaj)—and the opposing elemental qualities of their names (heaven versus earth) is obviously not by chance. Clearly their marriage is primarily a financial arrangement between the families. Rocky lives with his parents and adult siblings in Toronto, and the frigid winter landscape is mirrored in his treatment of Chand: from the first he is distant and cold.

That coldness soon becomes violent when Rocky hits her in front of everyone in the household. (Although I have to say that the incident that triggers Rocky's violence does not seem consistent with Chand's character.) No one intervenes, of course; the beatings continue, and increase in frequency and intensity. Chand is later told by her sister-in-law (Ramanjit Kaur) "That's just the way Rocky is."

The scenes of Rocky's violence are very difficult to watch; the acting and filmmaking are all too effective. Soon, like Chand, we start to flinch every time Rocky comes into the room. There's a scene where Chand and Rocky start arguing while she is ironing clothes, and thinking about what Rocky (or Chand) might do with a hot iron was sickening. Mehta doesn't go there, fortunately.

In addition to having to watch Zinta's character repeatedly get brutalized, there are a couple of other aspects of the film that didn't work very well, at least for me. The first is the film's switch to black and white in certain scenes: the logic behind the change was not immediately apparent on a first viewing, and so the switch felt somewhat arbitrary. The second is the fantasy/magical realist element involving the conjuring of a cobra, who then begins to live in the family's backyard (and take sympathetic human form, as in the feminist fable of a few years earlier, Paheli (Puzzle, 2005)). It doesn't help that some of the special effects look artificial in a way that doesn't seem fully intended. So despite Zinta's excellent performance and the film's undeniable effectiveness I don't think I'll be in any hurry to experience Heaven on Earth again.

Parched (2015)

Tanishta Chatterjee, who was the best thing about Road, Movie (2009), is also the best thing about Parched. She plays Rani, a widow living in a Rajasthani village and trying to get her son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to pay attention to his new bride, Janaki (Lehar Khan), for whose bride price she has mortgaged their hut. Gulab would rather get drunk and visit brothels, and to do so he steals the money Rani has saved to pay back the mortgage. Meanwhile Rani's neighbor Lajjo (the excellent Radhika Apte) is being violently abused by her husband and turns to Rani for comfort. When the travelling nautch show of Rani's old friend Bijli (Surveen Chawla) arrives in the village, tensions erupt and the lives of all four women will be radically changed.

What was most compelling for me was not writer/director Leena Yadav's rather heavy-handed messages but the relaxed scenes between the women—which were funny, touching and occasionally bawdy—when they're finally able to get away from the (sexual and other) demands of the men around them. A telling sequence occurs when the women take a day trip together; when they return, Gulab complains that he hasn't had anything to eat all day: he is literally incapable of feeding himself.

In many places, though, the film feels almost exploitative. There are pole-dancing numbers, topless scenes, a Tantric (hetero) sex scene, and hints of lesbian attraction. As the hints of lesbian attraction (and the film's incendiary ending) might suggest, Parched seems to allude to Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996) more than once. But for me Mehta's film is far more subtle, more thoughtfully structured, and ultimately far more moving. Still, the performances of Chatterjee and Apte in particular were excellent (and brave), and I'll definitely be seeking out more of their films.

No comments :

Post a Comment