Tuesday, May 13, 2014

May mini-reviews

Things I've seen in the first two weeks of May 2014, presented in chronological order.

Calcutta 71
After about ten minutes of Calcutta 71, I had a sudden realization that this, not Ray's films, is what people are (unjustly) referring to when they stereotype Bengali films as impenetrably, ossified-ly arty. The contrast between this particular film and Ray—a comparison whose relevance I do not mean to overemphasize, but also one that occurs to me simply because Ray is the Bengali filmmaker I've seen the most of—arises as we see Madhabi Mukherjee's segment. In Calcutta 71, Mrinal Sen introduces her as a disembodied head surrounded by blackness talking about the dire situation of her family and living unhappily at her in-laws' house, whereas in Mahanagar Ray surrounds her with the warmth and chaos of her crowded family home. It's that slight difference between a situation feeling like "struggle" instead of "challenge."

I will not claim to have understood Calcutta 71 particularly, but neither will I argue that it's about much more than what it seems to be depicting directly: ongoing cycles of poverty and hopelessness, the willful ignoring of suffering by those who benefit from the systems that create them, and the extreme contrasts in the lives of those groups of people. That is plenty for a film of less than 90 minutes to take on, and the result both stings and numbs. It's the kind of film that is so blunt that there's little to say about it that isn't just repeating the film itself.
The only other Sen film I've seen is Akash Kusum, which I have watched three times and like very, very much (and hope to write about soon), and I would love your advice on which of his films to try next.

Taxi Chor 
You know how sometimes you're in the mood to do a Mithun watchalong with a friend in a foreign country and you choose a movie based solely on its name and  then it turns out to be of terrible audio and visual quality and a bunch of it mysteriously got chopped out of this upload and you have no idea what's going on but you enjoy it anyway? Taxi Chor has familiar elements like a family being traumatized in the opening flashback and the children scattering to disparate upbringings (a convent, a police officer's home), with two brothers growing up on opposite of the law, one a professional musician who dances with disco ladies in front of giant candles
and the other a gum-chomping thug 
who does fight scenes in slow-mo by actually moving really slowly and breaks into science-y rooms and steals disguises and spills combustible chemicals. 

Honestly, we saw very little taxi-stealing in this film, and we have no idea if it figures into the plot significantly or not, though we lean toward "not." But who cares! Two Mithuns wearing comically tight bellbottoms dance, love, fight (even each other! in a haunted graveyard!), avenge their father, and reunite their family. I would very much like to see a better print of this film. It may be predictable and silly, but it's predictable and silly in the ways I tend to really like, namely good fun with splashes of masalatastic genius, like bad Mithun shooting not his opponent but the switch on a fan that causes the contents of a disputed briefcase full of cash to blow all over the room.

Naseeb
Manmohan Desai is one of my favorite directors and I hold his work in the late 70s (Parvarish, Amar Akbar Anthony, Dharam Veer) to be a glorious apex of achievement of creativity, thought, style, and pleasure in Indian cinema, yet I have not raced to devour his filmography simply because I love his movies so much that I want to dole them out and extend the joy of first experiences of them as long as I possibly can. This weekend I finally arrived at Naseeb, inspired by Filmi Geek's excited tweets about it, and WHOA.
My notes on who's who, scribbled only partway through the film and thus not complete.
This film is not for the faint of brain—and is evidence of why it's ludicrous to claim baloney like "Indian audiences only understand/like simple, predictable films." There may be formoolas to Desai films, but simple they are decidedly not. In addition to this HUGE cast of interlinked characters, Naseeb relates good and bad, submission and striving, fate and decisions, in ways I didn't entirely expect. For example, I did not know whether a heroine would end up with a romantic partner who was the poor son of a man (wrongly) accused of murder and theft who makes a huge sacrifice for friendship OR with the well-off, foreign-returned, decent son of the actual thief and murderer, now prosperous as a result of his misdeeds. Does masala logic want to glorify convoluted sacrifices more than it wants to punish murder?

As always with Desai, you are rewarded for paying attention and thinking through the moral dilemmas along with the characters. Can the son be better than the father? Can the father improve himself? What happens to all these men in a world almost devoid of female involvement or influence? How long can someone lie to himself about his past crimes? Is "she's loved me all along, even when I was a pathetic drunk!" a good enough reason to start a relationship? How many times can Lalita Pawar be prevented from telling the truth about who Pran and Amitabh really are? How fun is it to see Hema Malini as the badass firecracker on the motorcycle instead of Reena Roy, who is surprisingly subdued? How great is it that Hema can be named "hope" even though she's thoroughly modern? How can the film's creative team make "My Name Is Anthony Gonzalves" and "Amar Akbar Anthony" Part 2 without demolishing the originals or suffocating the new inventions with geegaws? How much cultural appropriation is too much? Is lip-reading Chekhov's new gun? How fast can a wildly patterned revolving restaurant rotate before actors and viewers alike have to hurl? Is everything better if you set it on fire? Naseeb is incredibly satisfying, not the least for elements like these and a zillion more making it much more complex than its title suggests.

Gangvaa
This Robin Hood-ish film leaped to the top of my to-watch list simply because it features the romantic pairing of Rajnikanth and Shabana Azmi, an idea too weird to let go uninvestigated. Filmi Geek, connoisseur of all things Shabana-related, watched this with me, and we agree that for being somehow kind of B-grade in feel the movie is also tons of fun and was created with a great deal of thought for audience enjoyment. I'm really curious why Rajnikanth signed a remake in Hindi of a Tamil film that he didn't originate. Does that happen often—stars doing remakes of films from their alpha industry/market that they didn't feature in in industries that aren't their primary stomping grounds? Imagine Amitabh doing a Bengali remake of a Dharmendra starrer….

Other than these sort of philosophical meanderings, the highlight of Gangvaa for me is a scene in which Rajni is hanging upside down from his feet* and manages to swing himself over to grab a lit white candle with his mouth. It's a great play on his trademark cigarette, and I whole-heartedly appreciate the efforts taken to set up a reason for him to do it. Additional gems include a vaguely ooga-booga dance, an un-commented-upon visual parallel between the evil Amrish Puri and Rajni many scenes after he has slain him, the booming voice of Suresh Oberoi, Raza Murad as an evil take on Little John, innovative techniques for inflicting pain on enemies, fun camera angles that augment the action, and Sarika wearing a gold headpiece that reminds me of a triceratops (in a good way) (as if there is any other way for accessories to remind one of a dinosaur).
Warning: this film has four (to me quite disturbing) suicides and an extremely WTF ending.

Khooni Raat (2004)
I have...if not a soft spot for, then a curiosity about certain "one man show" players in Indian cinema (and they have all been male so far)—the guys who direct, produce, write, and star in a number of movies, either out of creative vision (Raj Kapoor, Feroz Khan) or the inability to rope anyone else into their madness (Kamal R. Khan). When a friend posted a video called "World's Most Pathetic Dance Video,"

  
I instantly recognized that white swing frame as a landmark often depicted by our old pal Harinam Singh, auteur of Shaitani Dracula and several other masterpieces of art brut, and figured this had to come from his or a related stable. Sure enough, it's an excerpt of Khooni Raat (from 2004, not the early 90s one with Om Shivpuri), by writer/director/producer/star Gyanendra Choudhry (whom I have to assume is featured in the above video). Horror expert Baba Jogeshwari told me this about the film:
70% stock footage and loose visuals from other films. A plain rape revenge story that stretches on to incomprehensible levels almost equating the Voynich Manuscript. The film has absolutely no screenplay whatsoever and is filled with random subplots and kills by different avatars of ghostly women who slay men in muddied bathtubs and the dirtiest bathrooms. The film is recommended for developed cult fans only.
Of course I watched it. It is full of trademarks that slightly-seasoned Indian horror viewers like myself recognize instantly: stolen music (James Bond! a muzak version of Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight"!), repetitive over-use of footage (see sad ghosty lady walk in the same woods to the same part of a song! Again!), endless shots that have no discernible connection to anything else (a long shot of goats standing on the edge of a river, interminable POV driving along a road with trees but no vehicles, humans, buildings, or signs—clearly an homage to Manos: The Hands of Fate), and ghostly/monstrous characters killing shuffling morons in a variety of unspectacular and grimy settings.
I lost track of how many times the road/James Bond theme/sad ghost song/kill sequence repeats. Khooni Raat is not very khooni at all and is in fact incredibly boring. It has no fun monster masks, no exceptional wardrobe choices, no scenic variety, and none of the weirdness that fascinates me about Shaitani Dracula. 

Apart from its repetitiveness, two features of this film stand out to me (both of which might be utterly common in Indian horror and I just haven't seen enough to know). First, one of the kills happens after a woman peers through a keyhole at her boyfriend taking a bath (with his swim trunks on) (see the scene in this clip). While women expressing sexual desire is common enough in the horror movies I've seen, I don't think I've noticed it depicted so one-sidedly: the couple does eventually come together physically with mutual pawing and heavy breathing etc, but there's more energy spent on her gaze with him as its target. She holds the power in this dynamic for quite awhile. Of course, she's also the ghosty killer in disguise, but it's not a simple "seduce and destroy" mission in this iteration.

Second, while the story, such that it is, is the standard "dead woman takes revenge on her rapists/killers" plot, the film orders the reveal of this information in a way that makes me take note.** It is only towards the end that the film shows the flashback of the rape and murder, which has the effect of making those deeds look almost like punishment for the murders that the ghost has already enacted in the film. While it's easy enough to assume from the start that the ghost is picking off scumbags one by one, I, for one, did not know that while I was watching. Since rape is so often given a shade of punishment in fillums, seeing these five men raping and killing her after I knew they were already dead gave me a very icky feeling indeed. Then assessing the whole film became a sick sort of scorekeeping: what's worse, a woman killing five men in revenge for their rape and murder of her, or five men raping and murdering a woman in revenge for her killing them?

I tell you this much: this is officially more thought than the filmmaker ever put in.

* Confession: I originally typed this as "feat," which was surely just my subconscious assigning the proper level of awe to anything Rajni does in a film?

** I might be giving the film too much credit and this reveal only works if, like me, you don't know Hindi well enough to keep up.

7 comments:

Miranda said...

Well now I must certainly add Taxi Chor to the list (hopefully a better quality version exists)
. . . because if there's anything I've learned in recent months, it's that two Mithuns in the same movie are better than one (Aamne Samne, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, for starters). :)

I'm interested to read more of your Mrinal Sen forays. So far, I feel like the biggest barrier to watching Ray (in the half a dozen films I've seen so far) is merely the bleakness of the subject matter. Stylistically, however, and storytelling-wise, I think he's a joy. Sen is a complete unknown to me--other than looking up wiki summaries of his films--and I'm reluctant to jump in as they sound Important and Serious, and worse, inclined towards existential navel-gazing.

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Nanga Fakir said...

Keep up the excellent work!

I agree that Khooni Raat's USP (other than the very fabulous dance sequence you've linked to (and the fact that the song's so catchy! (I once thought of keeping it as my ringtone :P))) is its unique treatment of the classic rape-revenge story - foreshadowing future takes by the likes of Gaspar Noe in 'Irreversible' - a reverse narrative of revenge followed by the rape.

As again, great work! Thanks!

Beth Watkins said...

Miranda - Hopefully you'll find one - this one was even hard to hear clearly, which made straining for the unsubtitled dialogues even harder for this Hindi novice. As for Sen, I will need recommendations before going further. I didn't really care much for the style of this one at all and don't want to watch much more like it. Important and Serious are not a turnoff for me - it's going to be a question of tone. Akash Kusum is lovely, and the navel-gazing is firmly critiqued because the character does it thoughtlessly. Re: Ray: I think there are only one or two films of his that I'd call bleak, though "not entirely positive outcome" happens a lot, when in fact outcome is nailed down at all, which now that I think about it is rare.

Nanga - Thanks! Have you seen enough Indian horror to know if the reverse narrative is common? I really haven't. I also get the horror films I've seen all mixed up since they're so similar in plot, visuals, acting styles, etc....

Nanga Fakir said...

Nope! The reverse narrative has never been employed. Khooni Raat is unique, quite unique.

Beth Watkins said...

That genuinely surprises me! Very fun to know.

Neha Kapoor said...

This is amazing, wondering how much time you spent to make such a detailed list.

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