Monday, May 26, 2014

Bollywood at Cannes 2014: of Red Carpets and Gold Dresses

As the hoopla bubbled on over Sonam Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai standing on a carpet in France, Twitter/blog pal and general opinion-haver on films, celebrity, and glamor Bogey No. 2 and I had a chat about celebrity, cinema, and the world stage.

Bogey: Chalo, shall we begin our discourse into the Bollywood presence at Cannes 2014? 

Beth: Somehow this year, the hoopla around Sonam and Ash made me realize the difference between "walking on the carpet at Cannes" and "being part of a movie at Cannes," and I want to know what other people think about that. I don't mean to be curmudgeonly and I don't mean to under-value what "Cannes as world cinema stage" means (or could mean). I understand why ANY kind of presence is perhaps potentially useful, either to individual stars/directors/producers OR to a whole industry, but also I cannot pretend I think modeling is the same as acting/filmmaking, and it seems to me that Ash and Sonam were primarily modeling. So many people seemed more excited about THAT than they were that Uday Chopra was actually part of a big film at Cannes—a sucky film, I gather, but still.

Bogey: A good point about modeling—Sonam and Ash were there in a capacity as brand ambassadors for L'Oreal —but I think the red carpet glamor is a big part of the Cannes publicity blitzkrieg. And what is very interesting is how the fashion press saw Ash representing some kind of old school glamor that has been sorely missing from her Hollywood counterparts...and having maintained a stoic silence in the face of her critics with regards to her weight and absence from films (with the former being totally unnecessary and cruel).

Beth: Yes, that is awesome. She does have a delightful “F*CK YOU” attitude even in still images. She comes out in warpaint, basically, with one eyebrow up like "BRING IT." 

Bogey: Interestingly, in many of the Western fashion blogs, all make reference to the critique she received for her weight and seem to pick up on the “F*ck you. I am awesome” vibe she gave out…. And I guess in a time before the interwebs, a photocall at Cannes would have been the way to make such a powerful statement.

Beth: True. And of course Ash has in fact had a film at Cannes before, so that makes her a more relevant figure there. I feel that same “What is THAT person doing there?” way about…who is that bonkers Russian tv anchor who shows up wearing a hat made of hair? [Elena Lenina. See pictures here.]

Bogey: It is certainly a way to grab eyeballs when everyone is ready to pull focus in a heartbeat. I would be more inclined to question Sonam's presence: with no film to promote and in my opinion, an underwhelming contribution to cinema in her career so far, Cannes is certainly more of a brand building exercise than a promotion of cinema.

Beth: TOTALLY.

Bogey: Somehow though, Ash seems to be the confluence of cinema, celebrity, and Cannes all in a gold dress….

Beth: It’s interesting that brand ambassadors show up at Cannes, just in general. Is L'Oreal there because they're French?

Bogey: Yes, I think they pay healthy sums to promote there.

Beth: Like Eva Longoria. What the hell has she done lately? Yet she's always there for the same reason. What I noticed this time was the Twitter reaction to Sonam and Ash. They’re paid people who are there doing their jobs? Fine. But Twitter EXPLODED. This really mattered to people somehow, and I'm curious about that. It reminded me of when an Indian-American woman won Miss America this last year and there was a lot of hoopla on my Twitter timeline, and I kept thinking "Okay great, a community has 'arrived' at winning a patriarchal, completely outdated, completely shallow competition. Woohoo?" But clearly these things are signs of…what, of belonging? of having made it on a foreign or global stage?

Bogey: Ash and Twitter did seem like one of those moments that captured a zeitgeist of sorts—as soon as a pre-release picture of her standing by a pool looking a screen siren got retweeted, it did have that feeling of pride. “Here is this beautiful Indian woman on the world stage about to wow the world with her beauty and charm.”

Beth: Like Anna Vetticad said, "Our films r barely there bt our beauty is well represented." Ouch. 

Bogey: And no one could really try to bring her down as is so often the case as seen with the Miss America last year ("oh she's not really Indian/American etc"). Vetticad is right—I think this is more down to filmmakers who haven't got their act together. Last year, at least we did have Bombay Talkies, which I found a nice tribute to 100 years of Hindi cinema in that it showed how audience tastes had broadened and was more accepting of different themes. But in general, making the film, including Cannes as part of the promotional strategy, takes a Machiavellian cunning, especially in Hindi cinema. 

Beth: This begins to get at the much bigger topic of "the rest of the world does/does not have an interest in Hindi cinema," which is similarly fascinating to observe.

Bogey: Egjactly! To change things up a little, imagine for a second that Ash and Sonam had not been at Cannes. Would the fraternity then complain how there was no presence at Cannes?

Beth: Oh of course, despite the son of one of the most powerful families/studios ever being involved in one of the films! And there was an Indian film in one of the other arenas at Cannes [Kanu Behl’s Titli, a YRF/Dibakar Banerjee Productions co-project]. It's like people want a certain kind of Indian film there, not just any Indian film.

Bogey: And I also thought what of people who would have never heard of the films being shown at Cannes were it not for Ash turning up at the premiere? If one person makes the effort to watch it only because of Ash being there, however superficial that is a good thing, na?

Beth: Yes, good point—that is a good thing. If they actually bring attention to Indian cinema, whatever that movie is, that is probably inherently good.

Bogey: Again, it is this whole idea that India feels the need to assert itself on the world stage and doesn't want to be seen as the poor uncouth relation to everyone else. Hence all this focus on designers, hair, makeup...

Beth: That’s interesting. I hadn't linked the fashion/makeup/etc to fighting image of being uncouth etc. but that makes sense in an advertising sort of way.

Bogey: Precisely. For an Indian market, it is saying “Look, we have all the best brands in house and to the rest of the world, it is saying our snake charmers wear eyeliner by L'Oreal!” ;-)

Beth: I read some of the comments on Go Fug Yourself and Tom & Lorenzo about Ash and Sonam, and it was interesting that while most commenters didn’t know who they were they were very positive, particularly about Sonam overall and about Ash's beauty in general (though less about the dress and makeup). That’s perhaps getting to what you’re saying—people interested in fashion and celebrity may not know anything about Indian movies but they are appreciating certain kinds of beauty in this context.

Bogey: On Red Carpet Fashion Awards, the non-desi author is very familiar with Ash, Sonam, and even Kangana. Context is key here. Also, I think great style looks good everywhere—Denver to Dhaka, if it looks good, everyone responds to it!

Beth: Beauty is subjective in some ways and not in others, or at least in English-speaking press.

Bogey: BTW, I agree that Ash's dress was nice but not as fashion-forward as one would hope. You could accuse it of being boring but in fashion, that is better than worst dressed.

Beth: And it's showy, which is nice. Showy without being crazy or tacky.

Bogey: Didn't Vidya show up at Cannes last year doing the Sabyasachi thang and look at the flak she got for that!

Beth: What do you think that flak was about? Was it mostly from Indian press or world or both ? 

Bogey: Again, it was all context. Indian press were disappointed that everyone could look and point at the Indian lady with a curtain on her head and a nose ring as big as J-Lo earrings ("why didn't she wear a gown," "it's not appropriate") but that was true couture/high fashion where Sabya only cared about projecting his creativity which I liked. I think the Western press gave it a miss, even cropping her out of some pics….

Beth: I'm looking at some pictures….Sonam in her sari with jacket, which I personally thought was really cool, though what do I know about saris? Oh god and Mallika—nobody knows why she’s there. 

Bogey: Ha ha at Malika. But for the same reason, why was the supermodel Rosie Huntingdon Whitley there? Is it not acceptable for Amisha Patel or Mallika to turn up but for some supermodel/Hollywood starlet to do so?

Beth: You're exactly right. Nobody knows why Rosie is anywhere, do they?

Bogey: Ha ha, unless it is modeling or Transformers, nope!

Beth: And this is what I'm talking about in terms of crowd response: I think most Americans would go "Oh lord, Paris Hilton is at it again" where as I thiiiink the Indian response on my Twitter timeline is "SONAM IS THERE! WOOHOOOOO!" Though now that I think about it I did see only a very few people say anything about Mallika.

Bogey: I think the Indian press want to project a certain image and an Ameesha/Mallika are the batty Madhur Bhandarkar creations that escaped their chains and are spoiling the pretty party!

Beth: Heehee!

Bogey: So it is more a popularity contest then?

Beth: Oh yes definitely, and the idea that certain people count as representing India/Bollywood/whatever and certain people don't.

Bogey: I think Sonam has a huge fanbase amongst teens and they rule Twitter (all those bloody One Direction hashtags FTW).

Beth: (Aside: I didn't know Prosenjit Chatterjee was at Cannes last year.) That's a good point too: who is doing the talking?

Bogey: But on the mega fans, yes, I think they are the ones who worship celebrity over cinema and sadly, that is the way it is now—as time goes on, it is about the look and not the film.

Beth: And that is true of all the mega fans. Probably a zillion Rajni fans right now are screaming at Raja Sen for hating Konchidaiyaan. Or the Salman fans who attack SRK movies and vice versa. So tiresome. My favorite are the Rajesh Khanna mega fans (Kaka Cuckoos) who will go looking for blog posts about his movies that aren't 100% positive and write nasty things...40 years after the fact.

Bogey: I think the fan thing has not only killed the whole film thing but on Twitter as well, where we could previously have debates, now I can't critique a Katrina without being trolled.

Beth: Yeah, the fan thing is is very nasty and shallow and weird.

Bogey: It seems they don't understand that constructive criticism is necessary. I think that is the fine line between many serious filmi bloggers and fan bloggers.

Beth: It is! And being able to combine seriousness and fun—and appreciate both in many places. 

Bogey: Exactly! Forming a community with shared values—not everyone agrees but the respect to listen to someone with a different POV and accept as part of the cosmos—is soooooo underrated these days!

Beth: On a somewhat different note, I am very very tired of the tendency of both us amateurs and the professional critics of conflating beauty with acting ability. Ahem Sonam. This is true for the men too of course—6-pack abs aren't the same thing as acting either. Film is a visual medium and all, of course, but that only goes so far—the beauty needs to be employed in some kind of relevant way. 

Bogey: Precisely.

Beth: I think that's why I get so eye-rolly-y at the red carpet fandango: "Okay, they are walking around looking pretty. Where are their films?" But clearly there's stuff about what "red carpet" means that I'm not aware of or thinking about.

Bogey: It is a very grey area, isn't it? On the one hand, it is an effective marketing tool—you will get more attention with a beautiful woman on the red carpet than without. But now celebrity has overtaken what a red carpet means. It was meant to be about the film being shown in public, but instead, it means photo ops and brand-building.

Beth: I wonder if that's true once one is inside the screenings? I hope not.

Bogey: From what I understand, most stars don't stay for the screenings. Lucky, then, for Akki when I went to the premiere of Chandni Chowk to China, who got away before I could thrash him for such a godawful film!

Beth: I have never been to a premiere! Must remedy!

Bogey: Yes, you must— if only for the priceless look on other people's faces when you walk down the crimson carpet and wave to them! (Yup, I did!)

Beth: I read after the fact that a desi blogger from New York was walking around the IIFAs in Toronto a few years ago with sunglasses on and getting his friends to come rushing at him like he was someone. A surprising number of people fell for it, but I can see why. I hung out in the hotel most of the stars were staying at and every few minutes there'd be a rush towards a door, and I bet most people probably couldn't really see who was at the center of the rush—they just rushed too!

Bogey: People are ridiculous around celebrity. I work in television and used to work at major TV studio where we would get all the stars in and see how people would push and shove—and for what? The poor star was normally jetlagged, bored, and couldn't care less that some poor girl had stood outside since 8:00 a.m. just for this moment. It was quite sad.

Beth: It's a very weird system we've developed.

Bogey: I guess as celebrity is a necessary evil for cinema, no?

Beth: I guess? Does it comes from advertising? Cinema is a business as well as an art, and businesses need to advertise.

Bogey: Oh yes, it is a system, there is no doubt about that.

Beth: That’s a thread I’ve seen in Anne Helen Petersen's series "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" all about the old film stars. The stories could be from right now and really illuminate this need we see seem to have to read about celebrity drama and tragedy. The” build them up, tear them down” thing. Studios want publicity and it hardly matters for what, and of course the print media were in on it too.

Beth: What do you think of the Bollywood red carpet scene in London? Is it the same kind of vibe of Cannes at all (scaled down, maybe)? Or very different?

Bogey: Very different. It is INCREDIBLY cliquey, “see and be seen,” with little or no regard for the film unless it’s masala and fits into a “how weird and wonderful Bolly is” remit. Sometimes, you'll even see people on their phones during the film. It doesn't exactly inspire one. The exception is London Indian Film Festival, which deliberately tries to keep things classy, but is also cliquey with some people who think they are very smart but are just vacuous.

Beth: Ugh. That's just as bad.

Bogey: A shame, really. I went to a Sci Fi film festival a few weeks ago and there was a similar vibe where there was not a collective sense of belonging but a pecking order - if you were not a filmmaker or with the in crowd, it was easy to get ignored and be left out. For me, a successful film festival should be about a like-minded, progressive community coming together. Same principle applies to the London Hindi scene in my experience.

Beth: Especially in something like sci fi that for so long was relegated to the side as "weird.” Insecurity run amok. Let's all rise above it, people! let's enjoy this thing together!

Bogey: Yup! I guess it is nature of the beast, na?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Akash Kusum and Manzil

[This piece contains vague spoilers, especially if you have only seen one of the two films, because their endings are different. The pertinent discussion will be marked SPOILER and END SPOILER.]

Akash Kusum (Mrinal Sen, 1965), a Bengali film I truly love, and Manzil (Basu Chatterjee, 1979), its also excellent Hindi remake, are very similar to look at—and I have included a lot of photos to show just how similar the scenes are. But the titles make clear the contrast in their tone. Bengali friends have told me that the original title translates to "flower bud of the sky," meaning "daydreaming," "improbably imaginations," or "building castles in the air" (mrinalsen.org calls it Up in the Clouds in English), whereas the Hindi version sounds much more resolute: "destination." Even if the sense of "manzil" is more like "stage," a stage is a measurable, sometimes very long-lasting or real place, whereas a flower or castle in the sky is imaginary, impossible, and inherently unsupportable. There is a desperation in Akash Kusum that in Manzil seems more of an attainable wish or even an eventuality.

In brief, each is the story of a young man (Soumitra Chatterjee and Amitabh Bachchan; both are named Ajay, but let's spell the Bengali one the way the film does, Ajoy) whose striving in business
is mirrored by a growing romance with a girl from a higher-class family (Aparna Sen as Monica in Akash Kusum and an equally wooden Moushumi Chatterjee as Aruna in Manzil).
Their endeavors are threatened by shaky foundations: the business by a shifty partner
and the romance by the compounding lies the hero has had to tell to keep up the facade that initially let him be in the same orbit as the heroine. Both also have great moments of humor as Ajoy/Ajay has to cover his lies on the spot. My favorite is over the phone, as he pretends to search a nonexistent appointment book when Monica/Aruna suggests a movie date. (I'm reminded of Bridget Jones's self-affirmation that she is "v busy and important" when she wants to ignore Daniel Cleaver.) The most famous, however, is a giant bluff at a sari store when he grandly offers to purchase her selection and then has a long, completely fake conversation with his empty office about where he left his wallet.

I'd love sari-knowledgable people to comment on the wares in the shops. The Bengali is marked as handloom, and the 15-years-later Bombay shop looks full of polyester?
[SPOILER] The two films end differently—Manzil carries the story further and concludes it somewhere very different in plot and feeling than Akash Kusum—and to me it seems these choices in storytelling speak clearly about what the original audiences valued and expected. I don't want to carry too much into these films from stereotypes about the respective industries, but it does seem the Bengali hero is more self-doubting. His arc is less smooth and steady than the Hindi hero's arc. Basu Chatterjee may count more as middle cinema than masala, but the final shot in Manzil could be straight out of any Hindi mainstream film; Mrinal Sen's is more ambiguous and shows very different emotions on the characters' faces.

There's an interesting visual detail in each film that suggests their approaches to themes like uneasiness and facade. In Akash Kusum, Sen peppers stills of characters and Calcutta throughout the film (an artistic choice critiqued by Satyajit Ray—read more here and here), rupturing the narrative yet also augmenting the mood and information by spending time on very particular views. This emphasis on moments is maybe reflective of how we remember our days: scattered little bits rather than fluid sequences. In Manzil, Chatterjee instead accompanies the titles with stills taken from elsewhere in the film but rendered in psychedelic or inverse colors, perhaps suggesting mis- or incomplete perception.
What I get from these similar but distinct visuals is that Akash Kusum is saying something about discrete decisions—moments in which choices are made and set into motion a certain chain of events— and Manzil about false impressions. Does either suggest resolution at all, let alone an easy or comfortable one?

A Bengali friend and I use the hashtag #masculinitybengal when discussing Bengali movie heroes on twitter, and I think it's fair to say that the two films present very different views the nature of the young man. There is significant variation between the films regarding resistance, effort, confidence, and capability for success as embodied by the young male and in how he interacts with and challenges (or not) power and social structures. Resilience too comes up, and to be honest it's a little disheartening to see Ajoy's ultimate lack of it on the face of the actor who played the triumphantly resilient Apu. I know this actor-baggage is unfair, but it echoes through the Hindi version too: Amitabh is not angry in this film, but his Ajay is more of a fighter. I see a similar attitude is in the young women, too, at a much lesser scale: Monica accepts her father's condemnation of Ajoy as a fraud, even voicing a rejection herself, but Aruna does not. [END SPOILER]

And what better choices could there be for lead actors to portray the overall vibe of each film?
Soumitra Chatterjee is a master at depicting thoughtfulness, brooding, and any kind of brain-backed emotion (worry, hope), and Amitabh Bachchan conveys with words and physicality that he can make things happen. Both give wonderful performances in different directions. The Bengali lead character seems a little more nervous, a little more aware that his castles may come crashing down at any minute. He has moments of confidence as he acts out his dreams, but when he stops to reflect—or is made to realize his risks when reality rudely intrudes—he looks subdued or broken. Ajoy pouts more, too, in facial expression and tone of voice, if not actual words (I didn't have subtitles for Manzil so cannot state with certainty). He is more childish, whining to his mother and being temperamental with the friend whose resources and emotional support have made his ruse possible (Subhendu Chatterjee).
Manzil's Ajay is more buoyed, less wobbling in his striving for success in business and society (as represented primarily by acceptance by his girlfriend's family).
His relationship with his friend (Rakesh Pandey) seems more jovial and less volatile, though Ajay does get in a snit from time to time.
I am fascinated by how directly the Hindi film creates moments from the Bengali.
Despite watching as many Bengali films as I have lately, I didn't anticipate a chance to directly compare Soumitra and Amitabh.* Their physical presences are impossible to ignore, most obviously their height that makes them stand out against almost everyone else in the films, and they both have an elegance that I think makes the characters' successful social reaching a little easier to believe. Both characters are introduced as...I'm not sure if it's respected or popular (or both) musicians whose talents attract the interest of the girls, which also seems a legitimate stepping stone into a higher-class society, and both actors are visually believable as commanding artists.**

Because Manzil is so often a scene-for-scene remake, there are many opportunities to look at how the actors and directors handle the same concerns. The pair of images below is from one of my favorite scenes: while out on the city streets with his slimy business partner, Ajoy/Ajay suddenly sees his love interest driving by. Both are horrified at the idea of being spotted either in that place or with that person and fake a coughing fit as a reason to hide their face (Ajoy also ducks behind a mailbox).

While combing through my screencaps of Akash Kusum, I noticed how many images show characters on the telephone, and that got me thinking about how much this now utterly mundane and ubiquitous tool means to the characters and the story of these films.
It's not just a symbol of prosperity: it makes the mobility and self-presentation in these stories possible. It works over distance and thus is very helpful when you need to lie, yet the phone also connects Ajoy/Ajay to the business and social worlds and opportunities he so deeply desires. He is unlikely to run into the kind of business or romantic contacts he wants in his everyday life, and phone calls in these films are often (though not always) deliberate, even arranged. "Pick up the receiver: I'll make you a believer" keeps echoing through my head. If I understand correctly, it is when Monica/Aruna asks for Ajoy/Ajay's phone number that his lies begin. We see the panic flicker across both actors' eyes—the films have shown us where he lives, and he and his mother definitely do not have a phone. Interestingly, even when they're not on the phone, characters are often near one. It lurks, equally threatening and enticingly, a fixture in many different emotional states. You never know who's on the other end. These films also capture that wonderful dopey feeling you get when the person you lurve calls you, the phone transporting you out of a consciousness of where you actually are and into the dreamy world where just you two exist.
Coincidentally (I swear!), Trisha Gupta just wrote a piece on the phone in Hindi cinema. It's a great read, discussing aspects of phone-based life like disruption, long-distance romances, and pocket-dialing, as well as the deliberate choice in The Lunchbox not to use modern phone technology in the principal story.

Like Calcutta 71, maybe after a certain point there isn't much to say about Akash Kusum/Manzil that isn't narrating the films directly. They are gentle and engaging, combining hopefulness, determination, and defeat to disparate effects. Each one works very well on its own, even almost 15 years apart and in different film cultures. In thinking about them together, maybe the most interesting point is that they are both so successful in their own storytelling built off of the same basic foundation.

PS I can already hear some of you saying "BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SONGS?!?!?!?" This is the one area in which Manzil suffers a bit from me having already seen Akash Kusum so many times. "Rim Jhim Gire Sawan" is nice on its own, and I do appreciate how it makes the couple seem so cozy and comfortable together, as well as the sort of ethnography of 1979 Bombay in the background, but in the flow of the whole film I find it just a little...soggy. Despite full awareness of how the films are handling the story, I cannot let go of the music that opens Akash Kusum (hear it here): light and ascending on unusual instrumentation (sounds like Rushmore, doesn't it?). The corresponding "couple wanders around the city" sequence in Akash Kusum, which is another series of Sen's infamous stills, opens with Ajoy's single unaccompanied voice, answered by Monica's (listen/watch here), then a minute or so of shimmering instruments, then ends with the sounds of the port and road with no human voice. To me, all of that is perfectly done, both as an isolated sequence and within the film as a whole. I want something similarly nuanced in Manzil; "Rim Jhim" is a little bit too much, even knowing that it's part of a different style of narrative. The two films handle their music differently, and on this particular point I have a preference.

PPS This will be the cover of my (currently imaginary) book on 1960s and 70s Bengali cinema.

* Uttam Kumar films turn up in Hindi more often, it seems, played by Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna?
** I am not clear on why the lead character does not pursue music as a career when he seems to be good at it. Is he not as good as I think, or is there language about having tried and failed at music professionally, or does he just have dreams that are more expensive than the income he thinks music can provide?

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.