Friday, October 25, 2013

crying: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 18, 2013

Read about or listen to this PCHH episode.

Let's keep this simple: PCHH talked about films, songs, etc., that consistently make them cry. Trey named the scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Emma Thompson loses it, which is my number one choice too. "When somebody has done the right thing and suffered for it and finally is rewarded and there's that sort of eruption, both for the character and the audience, of sadness and joy."

So, filmi friends, what movies make you cry and why? I know I cried during Chak De India in the cinema because those girls had gone through so much and came together so well, both as individuals with their own challenges and as a functioning group of wiser people with a common purpose, plus Shahrukh with the vindication and neighbors who don't hate him anymore, but I don't think I have subsequently. No other titles are coming to mind, but I hope some do if I search my email for "snuffle" and "bawl."

Update to post (October 26): After a good night's sleep I remember three other films that made me cry in the cinema: Stanley Ka Dabba, Taare Zamen Par (I think the Maa song, actually, which is extra pathetic, but in my defense I watched it with my parents, who are both teachers, and they were crying too), and the Farooq Shaikh scenes towards the end of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani

Friday, October 18, 2013

FIASCO!: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 11, 2013

Last week's Pop Culture Happy Hour features a discussion kicked off by one of host Linda Holmes's—and my—favorite episodes of This American Life: "Fiasco!" Listen to the TAL episode here and read about and listen to the PCHH episode here.

Definitions of a fiasco, as opposed to a more simple disaster or a more drawn-out series of less-than-ideal decisions, are hard to pin down. To me, it's almost a "I know it when I see it" sort of thing. Descriptors of a fiasco that these two podcasts discuss include:
• "When fumble leads to error leads to mishap, and before you know it you have left the realm of ordinary mistake and chaos and you have moved into the more ethereal, specialized realm of fiasco." "It's an altered state...the normal rules are off." (TAL)
• "Ambition exceeds competency or reality." (PCHH)
• And because I was curious about its etymology, I looked it up in the OED: it's from the Italian phrase "to make a bottle" but scholars are not clear why that phrase is applied to "a failure or breakdown in a dramatic or musical performance.... An ignominious failure."

The gist is similar. There is something spectacular about a fiasco, probably because it is the dark side of the brink of greatness. And on that point, it seems to me that a fiasco can be subjective: what to me is a disaster of epic proportions might for you be a successfully groundbreaking experiment—or at least a noble attempt that has merit for, and thus draws achievement from, its efforts. It is a dynamic system that takes some time to unravel but also exists within a particular, defined duration (which might only be discernible in hindsight—I'm thinking of a political administration, for example). Decisions interact with and compound on each other in fascinating and unexpected and always worsening ways. There is probably some unintended drama and certainly some accidents. The empathy, forgiveness, and/or decorum of the audience/bystanders/subject/victims gives way and they may actively turn against the principal participants.

Moving to our particular context of Hindi films, I tentatively posit that a filmi fiasco involves two basic phenomena, which are basically elaborate ways of saying "failure" and "scale":
1) The film wildly or catastrophically fails to meet its own goals, whether these are known because filmmakers or cast have stated them publicly or inferred by the audience through experience with similar films, other works by people involved, whatever was emphasized by promotional materials, etc. Audiences have every right to make these inferences—not being able to control how people understand and judge their work is one of the prices paid when a creator releases their work into the world—but of course they might not be what the creator intends or want. A goal can be as straightforward as the beloved concept "timepass" or as deceptively simple as "tell the story of ____."
2) The film violates the generally accepted concept of what a movie is without a good reason. That last part is critical to the definition because it helps distinguish between experiment and ambition on one hand and laziness and incompetence on the other. Failing to be a complete, coherent work might be a very purposeful statement by a filmmaker who is experimenting with conventions, and to me if that's done in service of making a bigger point about film history, culture, audience expectations, narrative, whatever, that's fine. Similarly, a tiny budget that cannot support the filmmakers' ambitions is not an automatic condemnation to fiasco. No one should be criticized for having dreams bigger than their pockets, though perhaps this situation leads more often to "A for effort" than impressive results.

Note that "box office" in isolation is not entering into it. Not all flops are fiascos.

A few films popped into my head as I was listening to the podcast. First on my list is Kamal R. Khan's Deshdrohi, which is a very easy choice and comes to mind whenever I think of spectacular failures and deluded filmmakers, which I do more frequently than you might guess.
If you haven't seen it, Deshdrohi is my vote for Bollywood's The Room; if you haven't seen The Room and there's no midnight screening near you right away, you can find it in the usual places. Deshdrohi is a perfect example of PCHH's definition of a fiasco: ego and ambition exceeding competency and reality. However, it's often boring, too, and I'm not sure a fiasco can be boring.

I also nominate Harinam Singh's Shaitani Dracula. I am fascinated by this film, and no doubt I have whined at some of you sufficiently over the last four years that you've broken down and watched it—a true testament of your affection and/or morbid curiosity.

As esteemed MOSS colleague Keith says at Teleport City, says:
Rarely, however, have I encountered a film that so closely resembles the scrawling on a padded cell wall done by a paranoid delusional. In no frame of mind and in no sense comprehensible by sane humans can you even call Shaitani Dracula a film. That it ever saw the light of day is testament to the fact that strange and inexplicable things still happen in this modern world. Even judged against the standards of cut-rate Indian horror cinema from outside the Bollywood mainstream—a genre that has never valued competence or coherence in its headlong rush toward another scene of a pizza-faced ghoul or a woman taking a shower while wearing cycling shorts and a bra—Shaitani Dracula stands out as something wholly more advanced than anything else yet witnessed. To watch it is an experience not unlike the final bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloq alternates between screaming in abject terror and rapturously yelling “It’s beautiful!” right before his head explodes.
MOSS agents Ninja Dixon ("...so extremely incompetent it actually feels unreal"), Tars Tarkas ("This is one of the most ridiculous films I have ever seen"), and Die Danger Die Die Kill ("I have been forever altered by the experience...I have been far too profligate in my use of the word 'incoherent'") have also written about it. In fact, much of MOSS got together earlier this year for a tweetalong, and so mighty was our ink-spilling that we got "#ShaitaniDracula" to trend.

Like Deshdrohi and The RoomShaitani Dracula is primarily the child of one...artist. It's a peril of a one-person show: there's no one else as invested as you are who will protect their own interests/sanity by making you rein things in or helping refine your vision with their critical thought. But I'm not sure that it fits my definition of a fiasco because I have no (un)earthly clue what the goals of this project are and thus cannot say with certainty that the film doesn't meet them. In fact, I am fairly confident one of the goals for the director is to wear fake teeth and grope young women, and he does these things frequently, so...success? And far from turning against Harinam Singh because of this film, I have sought out several of his other movies and would gladly watch more.

I went to twitter to see what else you would deem a fiasco, and here are the answers I got. I would not classify all of these as fiascos—and some of them I think are quite successful on their own terms (or mine, since success can be subjective)—but I include them here for the sake of discussion and the fun of remembering "Ohhhhhhhh right."
• the SFF entrants: Ajooba, Drona, JokerLove Story 2050, Ra.One. These, I think, fall under the wisdom that when you swing big with the hopes of knocking it out of the park, sometimes you miss by a mile.
To me, Drona is close to a fiasco but not quite: it gets worse and worse as it goes along and nobody even seems to be having any fun (including, I imagine, the audience), but it succeeds in creating a weird villain, some beautiful and interesting sets and locations, and underlining the burden of the heroic quest (this is perhaps unintentional, thanks to Abhishek's droopy demeanor, but might also be deliberate in the script or by direction).
• high-profile, less genre-y, mainstream projects by people who should know better: Besharam (speaking of ignominious), My Name Is Khan post-interval, RGV Ki Aag, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka RajaTees Maar Khan, Veer
Oh Veer, you lovable scamp, you dreadful miscalculation. My memories of it are blurred by how hard I was laughing as I watched, but I think it might be the fiasco-iest of the things I've seen from this list.
• And some other films I know nothing about so will not classify: Abdullah (though the debut film of Bob Christo has served some purpose in the world), Galiyon Ka Badshah, Majhdhaar, Mera Naam Joker, Oh Darling Yeh Hai India.

What are your nominations for filmi fiascos? Remember, we're not necessarily talking about films that don't make back their costs or are hated by critics and/or audiences. To paraphrase Seinfeld, these movies are a mess—and they're spectacular.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

antiheroes, superheroes, bad behavior, and restraint: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 4, 2013

Read a description of the podcast here and listen to it here.

Frick. I'm already a week behind in my plan to write a brief, timely Indian cinema-themed response to whatever points of the current episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast catch my attention. Oh well.

The big entertainment news before this episode was recorded was the finale of Breaking Bad, which I have never watched because it sounds so mercilessly bleak (and violent). PCHH's discussion of the series as a whole included the concept that when antiheroes are the focus of a story, especially a long one like a tv series, they still need antagonists, and these often take the form of even worse villains. Like many other discussions I've enjoyed on this podcast, this seems completely obvious now that they've pointed it out, but I'd never thought about it before. No perfect examples from mainstream Hindi cinema are leaping to mind, maybe because mainstream films don't seem to like having anyone truly bad be the focus of attention, at least not at the expense of the less-bad male lead. I can think of two sort-of examples off the top of my head.  In Delhi Belly, the male leads aren't exactly good—sloppy, crass, disrespectful of authority and conventions, and definitely not seedha saadha—but the people they're in conflict with are worse—violent, criminal, and, in the case of Tashi's first girlfriend, shallow. After rewatching part of Kaminey the other day in an attempt to remind myself that Shahid Kapoor's future didn't always seem as floundering as it does right now, I was reminded that Vishal Bharadwaj regularly uses antiheroes well: Priyanka Chopra's work as the femme fatale in Bharadwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf is my favorite of her performances and the first one that convinced me should could actually act, and to my eyes the person who might seem morally worse in Omkara, Saif Ali Khan's frightening Langda, steals the show.

And when does an antihero slide into being a really charismatic villain? Bollywood probably plays very carefully with that line, given the stereotype that audiences have a narrow definition of what a hero is, which is maybe one reason SRK's performance in Darr is so famous. Is it a coincidence that Darr was such a star-making turn for him? Is being a really juicy, layered villain a smart way to set yourself off from the more standard hero faces? I wonder if it felt like a huge risk to him at the time. And when you become a standard hero, maybe even the standard hero, you try to play up the underdog appeal by naming your most expensive and complicated home production after its epically-evil-referencing villain?

Glen Weldon, the comics and comic culture contributor, talks about superheroes and "the power of this very silly idea of people dressing up in outfits and whaling on each other, to protect us, to give us agency, to inspire, but also to rescue us in a very real way, an emotional way, a psychological way...the power of these characters to lift us up" (in reference to Dean Trippe's Something Terrible comic). With Krrish 347 soon upon us and looking so...problematic, I've again been thinking about that old question of why superheroes in Hindi cinema are one of the tougher genres to execute successfully. I keep coming back to the point that many people have raised of "Who needs a superhero when our regular heroes are so superheroic?" Hindi (and Tamil and Telugu) heroes already beat up dozens of baddies, rescue women and children, give voice to the oppressed or impoverished, reinstate the moral order, and bring emotional closure to stories—and depending on the era and type of film, they might already have capes and spandex tights. Toss in the mythologicals and reincarnation stories (Magadheera may be the most superheroic Indian film I've seen, but I've never heard anyone call it a superhero movie) and there hardly seems a need to bother with American-style superheroes. I watched the Puneet Issar Superman a few weeks ago and started out being quite taken with it, but by about halfway through it felt decidedly un-super and it seemed any hero worth his salt could have stepped in and done essentially the same things without bothering with a costume or telepathic Dharmendra (not that I want to live in a world without telepathic Dharmendra).

For the record, I am not saying Indian filmmakers shouldn't experiment with American-style superheroes if they want, or that there is definitively no scope for superheroes in Indian popular film culture, especially if story and/or effects can be harnessed to make clear that this is someone who is different from, and more than, the standard-issue masala mortal hero. It's just a steeper uphill battle than it might be in other parts of the world.

Side note: if you haven't read Todd's list of 10 oddball Indian film superheroes at io9, you should.

Stephen Thompson likes the growing trends of nice people being rewarded—"good things happening to good people." He quotes a tweet by David Slack "Vince Gilligan [creator of Breaking Bad, co-creator of The Lone Gunmen] is known across the industry as a very nice guy. Remember that the next time people say bad behavior is the price of genius." Can we say this about Bollywood? Are there famously nice people off-screen? I try not to let off-screen life influence my opinion of anyone involved with filmmaking, but it's hard, which is one of the two major reasons I tend not to read interviews or pay much attention to gossip. (The other is that I am always disappointed when stars and directors sound like idiots, and this happens far too often, and I have to remind myself that sounding dumb in interviews isn't necessarily the same thing as being dumb, and being dumb doesn't necessarily mean someone is bad at their movie-making job.) I'm not saying I'm above gossip—I'm just saying it muddies the waters of my head with things that I truly believe to be irrelevant most of the time. But those of you who do pay attention, do you think there's a connection in the fillum industry between genius and acting like jerks/babies? It's also hard not to wonder, in an world in which there may not be much distinction between "good publicity" and "any publicity," if bad behavior is hardly a price at all.

In reference to trying to make jokes in tweets that already have real estate gobbled by long hashtags, Linda Holmes reminds us that "The more you're constrained, the greater your art." I believe this to be true in my own professional life, though obviously it's not a principle I live by on this blog. Can we assign any general value to constraint in cinema? Surely Bollywood cocks a snook at any hint of a directly proportional relationship between constraints on the resources required by the creative process on the one hand and, on the other, the actual finished product and its expressiveness and entertainment value. Of course, many films operate within constraints on types of story and aspects of the human experience that can be depicted, whether dictated by the censor board or issued by producers on behalf of audiences whom they assume to have limited tastes and interests. There can be a high creative cost to content constrained by formula or formulaic approach. Brevity, though, is a different question. Bye-bye, odious comic side plot uncles and long-winded moralizing mothers.

To close: this lip synch battle on Jimmy Fallon between Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Merchant, and the host is a hoot, partly because of the reveal of unexpected (at least to me) talents and partly because...how do I phrase this? The majority of white boys in the US (and in my experience the UK), to be blunt, tend to ignore all encouragement towards song and dance if they aren't song and dance (or comedy) professionals. I don't know how choreographed ahead of time this was or if their gestures and steps were relatively improvised. I would love to see any of the filmi stars do improvised, or even not well-rehearsed, lip synching to songs that aren't ones they made famous. Has that ever happened? That should definitely happen.