Sunday, December 30, 2007

Shakespeare-Wallah

Brain-type place: Wow, that was a fantastic movie. What wonderful performances by Felicity Kendal (Lizzie Buckingham) and Shashi Kapoor (Sanju)! What beautiful scenes! What lovely writing! What interesting questions it raises!

Heart-type place: Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can write about this without gushing personal emotions all over the place.

BTP: You poor thing. Here, take my hankie.

HTP: [snuffling and blubbing] Thanks. I'm trying to pull it together but I'm not quite there yet.

BTP: Merchant and Ivory movies used to affect you like that in college, remember?

HTP: I know, but I'm 33 now - I'm so embarrassed. Shouldn't I be able to get a grip?

BTP: Ah, that's one for the ages. I'm glad it's not really my line of work. Don't worry too much about it, though - all things must pass, all in good time, etc. Anyway, I'm feeling pretty stupid, too, for not knowing more of the Shakespeare references.



This was a sad, sad movie for my filmi-escapism self. The romance was so cute but so ill-fated, whether we take it to have been sunk by challenges stemming from differing expectations or by personal inertia that would have had to have been overcome for the relationship to have had a real chance. Why isn't affection enough? The same notes that go by different names can still be played together, after all, especially when sweetness and good humor are involved...



...can't they? Can we ever really love, really relate to people who are from different cultures? [The Beth Loves Bollywood official stance on this question is: I sure hope so!] Sweet-talking and fast-loving Sanju is (I think) genuinely drawn to both Lizzie and to Manjula (Madhur Jaffrey), a film star, but he shares an understanding with one of them that the other doesn't seem to be able to build. Starlet Manula is sophisticated, glamorous, very pulled together, Indian, and a part of Sanju's history, and young Lizzie is...not.


Are Lizzie and Sanju doomed by "can't" or "won't"? And does that distinction matter much since the effect is the same? I got really worked up by what I perceived to be laziness in some of the characters - not because it was unrealistic but because it hit a nerve that runs to my own experiences of giving up and of being given up on. After all, if you truly care about something, you should put effort into it, right?

I really shouldn't have said "the romance." There are several, including the Buckinghams' love of India and their own history in it serving as the ultimately declining arc within which the interpersonal romance is set. There's also Indian anglophilia at play, with different characters showing different attitudes towards it.

The profession of most of the major characters, acting, puts a spin on these relationships. Who are these people, exactly, and what are they really feeling? Do Lizzie and Sanju really love each other? Or is each just playing a role for a little while with no grounded expectation that what they're doing will exist long-term? Questions about the roles we play, our personal performance spaces and backstages, the lines we give each other seem pretty obvious in a story about actors, but trust me that they're handled carefully here and nothing feels heavy or cheesy.

My notes from this movie go on and on and on, and I'm having a really hard time deciding what to comment on. It is a very finely crafted work. There were tons of moments of "aha!" or "oooh!" but also many of "I wonder what that means!" For example, under the opening credits, the Shakespeare troupe is dressed in Louis XIV-ish outfits and discusses a play called The Spanish Armada.


I don't know what that was about at all. Is it to imply they don't really know their (own?) history? Or is something else going on with these mismatched historical references? Either way, the actors in their ridiculous get-ups are in contrast to the majestic and comfortable-looking architecture and landscape - they stick out and are stared at - maybe to imply the increasing disconnect between Shakespeare as they're performing it and their potential audiences? Or, a few minutes later, we see Indian members of the troupe reading Lolita (this is the second film from 1965 I've seen that book in, interestingly - the "modern" heroine of Jab Jab Phool Khile has it too) and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There are tons of details that suggest the sweep of history, of the changes that India had undergone and was continuing to explore.

There are also some gentle pokes at mainstream Hindi cinema, with the movie star Manjula as a shallow but crowd-attracting and calculating thorn in Sanju's affections for Felicity Kendal's fresh, rough-and-tubmle stage actress. When provoked, Sanju tells Manjula she's not a "real actress" and that Lizzie's work is so honest and philosophical. When we first meet Manjula, she's dancing down a wooded road, which we know is a song picturization long before see her singing or the director shouts "Cut!" and the playback is turned off. Temperamental Manjula gets in a huff about something and yells "Pack up!" and stomps off, just like in Om Shanti Om.

It would be terribly irresponsible of me not to mention that there are several very satisfying, very scrummy kisses between Felicity and Shashi. These are the kinds of kisses I always want in Hindi cinema and very rarely get. They hit that perfect balance of steamy and sweet, of real world and private space.

On the flip side, it must also be said that when they're being Shakespearean, real-life Shakespeare-wallahs Laura Liddell and Geoffrey Kendal (parents of Felicity and Jennifer) chew the scenery with shameless abandon. I hope they're doing it on purpose to show how out of touch their characters are, because all I could think is "No wonder nobody wants to come to your plays." Or maybe this is what people did in 1965. But they're great when they're offstage, being the actors when they aren't acting. I also had a serious problem with Sanju's outrage at his honor being insulted when some goondas harass Lizzie; I understand that some men, particularly fictional, historical men in cultures in which women are generally on less equitable footing, hold this attitude, but it repulses me.

So much for trying to condense my notes. I have a ton more to say and ask about the movie, so please share your thoughts. I'd feel dishonest if I didn't try to express how downright gut-wrenching it was for me, so kindly excuse HTP her autobiography; a week later I'm over the pain but far from finished thinking about the movie. (It also has some moments that are very funny or tap into some other emotions that aren't crying, so it's not as though I was sobbing the whole time.) I'll leave you with a whole-hearted recommendation to rent Shakespeare-Wallah right away. It demands much of your brain and heart, but you will be richly rewarded.

Oh, and just another reminder that your love life is probably not as good as the good moments of movie romances.



(Yes, I am jealous.)

And for the "And lo, he is a beautiful Shashi!" files.




He makes the best FPMBF.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

with apologies to Josef Mohr

On this most Germanic-ish of holidays, let me tell you that last night I was singing what I remembered of the German lyrics of "Silent Night," and as I finished the first verse, "Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh," into my head popped "Schlaf in himmli Shahrukh." Of course, it wasn't until just now that I realized the words were "himmlischer Ruh" and not "himmli Scheruh," making my substitution all the dumber. (Und ja, I realize that "Ruh" is a word that makes total sense in context, but it's been a really long time since I saw the text.)

It's a nice image, though: while not grammatically correct, I imagine Mini Khan all snuggled up in a blanket while the stars twinkle above and snow falls softly. Babasko, you can make that happen, right?

Sleep peacefully, everyone.

Update to post: she can and she did!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Taare Zameen Par

(Foreword: this piece has turned out to be mighty list-y, but I'm not sure I really mind, because the movie is so uncomplicatedly lovely that maybe there's not that much that needs to be said about it.)

It's a bit like Chak De India, isn't it: full of heart-string-tugging tropes, of stories we've heard before, of very effective youngsters and (relatively) subtle, inspiring Khan-jis? As I said about the former, there's nothing wrong with using those raw ingredients if you do something unique, meaningful, and/or entertaining with them, and Taare Zameen Par made the different-is-beautiful, inspiring-teacher tales work really well.

The cast is excellent, most notably Darsheel Safary, of course; as is the inherent danger with stories about small children facing big challenges, if he hadn't had such a careful touch, the movie would have been a trite, mawkish mess. Aamir too deserves credit for getting such a performance out of the story's little star - as well as for acting with him so effectively. I found all the characters to be written interestingly and performed with heart, especially Ishaan's family and especially especially his relationship with his older brother. The animation, unlike anything I've seen in an Indian movie so far, is charming and evocative and perfectly integrated to show us Ishaan's mind and ways of communicating. I'm not nuts about the soundtrack, but it's way better in the movie than it was when I listened to it on its own last week. (And oh how I blubbed during "Maa" - and that was just the first of at least three times that I cried.) Overall the movie creates several different worlds and manages to interconnect them, to get the inhabitants to understand one another. It's very sweet and moving, raises important questions about life in the lock-step competitive culture, and is a non-stupid movie for viewers of any age. I hope everyone who sees it can act on its lessons.

Let's just say this: I took my parents to see it, and even my dad, male child of the 50s that he is, said "that was a two-hankie movie we had there!" in an admiring sort of tone. My parents are both teachers and have dealt with dozens of students with less than ideal educational backgrounds, and I wonder if that had something to do with how much they liked it. It certainly made me very grateful and pleased that I spend my work days involved with learning and outreach and encouraging people to try to discover and understand others.

Aside #1: I don't know if that story Aamir's character told about Solomon Islanders felling trees through negativity is true, but even if it isn't, wow, that's a good thing to keep in mind, you know? How often does each of us weaken the roots of another person or otherwise add to the conditions in which they can wither and fall? What a harsh, important thing to remember in how we treat other people.

Aside #2: Aamir, yaar, this was a very fine movie (I don't have a firm grasp on what a film director does, exactly, but there wasn't anything here that I didn't like, so great job!), but what is with the fauxhawk? Is the character just so so unconventional that he could only be expressed through your hair?

Friday, December 21, 2007

NPR's Laura Sydell and I have something in common.

She too has an inexplicable love for "Ganpat" from Shootout at Lokhandwala. (I was obsessed with the song in the spring, evidenced here.) And now that I've watched the video again, let me note how much I enjoyed the beautifully floppy, casual, braggy choreography when the bhai dance together. (The rest of the picturization, including different people lip-synching for the same speaking voice, is forgettable.) I've forgotten if there was general consensus on the movie itself; I picked it up off the shelf at the video store yesterday but went for Shakespeare Wallah instead.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

a most auspicious event*; or, when I accidentally got to hear London's Bollywood Brass Band

When I was in London last winter, I ran very short on time to do everything (and see everyone) I had hoped. But a don't-miss for me is the absolutely fantastic Museum of London (the only other museums I got to were the Tate and the British Museum, and that was not nearly enough). I was already in high spirits as I opened the door, and you can imagine the squeak of delight at this sign greeting me in the museum's lobby:

I went to each of the performances, backtracking through the exhibits on London's history to claim a front-row spot in the lobby. I took a ton of pictures, most of them dark or blurry.

Trumpets + trombones + tuba + dhol = so fun.


There were also costumed re-enactor-type people running around the museum that day, and you can see two 60s Austin Powers-extra-looking guys on the right. They grooved along the whole time, medallions clanking. I really wanted to dance with them but was too shy.


Some of the pieces were accompanied by (muted) film clips. I don't know what Helen song this is

but we all know this one.


Technically this picture is crap, but it captures the spirit of the concerts.


If you ever get the chance to catch the Bollywood Brass Band in person, run, don't walk. You can hear samples here.

* Later that same day I had dinner at an Indian restaurant and when the waiter noticed me singing along to the Bollywood videos playing on the tv above the bar, he gave me the song DVD we had been watching.

Aside: this only faintly has to do with Bollywood and is included just because I'm remembering what a fun trip I had. My traveling companion to England, my old friend Melina, travels a lot for work and had managed to rack up enough points in the Hilton card system for us stay for free at the London Conrad on Chelsea Harbor. It was ridiculously posh - v Taj in quality if not in style or friendliness - and we were utter ragamuffins in comparison to the rest of the guests. We shot a Cribs-style video of our suite.

How could we not, given the level of celebrity that was in our rooms?

Melina's general response to TMBWITW is a dramatic statement of TMBWITW's overwhelming beauty that makes her want "to off myself - I mean, why even bother?" (her words), but she let me keep the magazine out anyway.

Friday, December 07, 2007

What happens in blue fake-pretend Russian Indian Venice stays in blue fake-pretend Russian Indian Venice: Saawariya

You...me...tonight...never happened. We don't know each other.

I'm not your type anyway. I need someone who makes me laugh, makes me think, makes me have an emotion other than staring wide-eyed and running in slow motion. You're too young for me, immature, too focused on appearances. You're full of tears and sacrifice, giddy dancing, content-free tittering. You suck all the joy and substance out of everything. You seem to want to save women with the jaunty flip of your hat (or dangle them off of high buildings or push them around), and that doesn't cut it with me.

Besides, your insistence on mooning over completely inappropriate people just makes me want to sit you down, mother-hen-like, and help you find someone more suitable - someone who likes forced, unsubstantiated romances and communicates via puppy-dog eyes.

But you've got some moves. And my stars, you're so beautiful. While we were together, I couldn't think about anything else. Sigh.

But I need more. It just isn't right.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Happy birthday Michael!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

very sensible, very sweet: Cheeni Kum

What I like most about Cheeni Kum is that it is a story about people who are adult enough to know themselves and then behave and make decisions accordingly. Somehow there's a matter-of-factness about the way they relate to each other, and their relationship as a whole, that I found endearing. Here are these two strange little creatures who don't seem to mind that they are different from most other people (though we don't get much input from "other people" in the movie - it's mostly their own little world, which is how it feels at the beginning of a good relationship, isn't it?), and though they quickly recognize their odd-duck partner, we still get to see them trying to work out the conjunction. They're true to themselves but they're careful with the other person. There may not be sugary froth, but it's still sweet as can be.

Now that is a movie love story to covet.

And yes, ordinarily I would be skeeved out by the age difference and angry that two weeks before I saw Cheeni Kum, Shahrukh flirting with Bindu in Om Shanti Om was played as ridiculous, as a joke. I can't imagine that we'll see Dimple Kapadia and Saif Ali Khan having an actual, mutual relationship, one like that in Cheeni Kum,* anytime soon, and that is annoying for its double-standardness. And the way of cultures around the world. Etc. It works here because they're up front about it, they discuss it, and nobody pretends it isn't so. We see them as sensible grown-ups elsewhere in the movie, not as a lech and a plaything.

Really the only thing that bothered me was a nagging question about why the little girl was called Sexy. I'm not buying the idea that it was a nod to letting her taste something of the adult world - after all, she didn't have the experience to really understand what the word means. (I daresay being a woman named Sexy and navigating the wilds of London could be most unpleasant, if at times humorous. Once she got to the jungle of middle school, she'd change it anyway.) And to make that point, they just as well could have called her Home Ownership or Income Tax .** If anyone has an explanation, by all means, do tell.

A good point from my friend Abby, who is in vet school (this is relevant): do you remember where Amitabh and Paresh Rawal are when Amitabh tells him he's dating his daughter? In the loo. In the act. Marking their territory. Maybe not quite so grown-up after all - but if that's the most juvenile a story gets, then sign me up.

* Suggestions for other pairings for a reverse Cheeni Kum are welcome. I also considered Shabana Azmi with either Saif or Rahul Khanna, due mainly to Shabana's gravitas as a film personality. I think the gravitas of the older character is necessary - that keeps the skeeviness in check. The younger player should also not be an idiot, not a piece of fluff. Preferably both have done a range of roles across the seriousness spectrum and are able to handle comedy.

** Fun game! If we want to be very filmi, we could call her Shaadi. Or if we want to be "less sugar," we could call her Trampy...Desperate...Spinster Auntie...so many options.