Bahubali And The Battle For The Soul Of Bollywood

 

1494220398_baahubali-2The biggest movie of the century so far doesn’t star a Khan. Although it is a love story, it’s not a traditional romance. It has a couple of catchy songs, but I have never heard them being sung. It stars Ameesha Patel (and no its not Kaho na.. pyar hai). Final hint, and we will all know which film it is: its most famous supporting star is a Hand pump. Yup, it was Gadar: Ek Prem Katha from 2001.

A story of Sikh-Muslim romance that had a solid grounding in a family, had a great, almost superhuman hero, recreated a past era, was the most expensive film till date, was about the hero overcoming great odds not for revenge but for love, and most of all, it evoked passionate nationalism. It makes you wonder why it took so long for Bahubali to recreate that formula. Bahubali 2(Hindi) is on the track ro break Gadar’s record soon. All versions combined it has already earned more than 1000 Crores, creating a new benchmark. Bollywood is all about repeating a successful formula. Why did it take a Telugu film’s dubbed version to recreate that success?

Bollywood has embraced another, narrower formula. It comes with lower risk, even if it lowers the rewards in more ways than one. Bollywood has been trying to go global, following the path of the other hits of 2001. Lagaan with its Oscar ambitions, and Dil Chahta Hai with its metropolitan, English speaking appeal. These are the paths Indian cinema has tread since then.

We have films about romances of a jet setting generation that could as easily be based in London or Paris as in Mumbai, but hardly ever in, say, Dhulia or Bilaspur, let alone in rural India. Then we have the small scale “spectacles” like Jodha Akbar, Ram-Leela or Bajirao Mastani, which ignore all the realities of India, put on a veneer of an era, but look as if the maker forget to infuse anything like the soul of India, past or present.

That doesn’t seem to be an accident to me. Ever since Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge started smashing overseas records, and Bollywood started to make an entry in Top Ten Charts overseas, the lure of easy money has led our makers down an alien path. They are now catering to an audience that barely understands India. This audience has no real connection, apart from an occasional visit. It doesn’t speak Hindi very well, and doesn’t understand flowery language. Nuances of cultural aspects of India are lost to them, and will only confuse them.

So tradition is limited to a distorted Karwa Chauth or a Holi borrowed more from Silsila than the streets of Banaras. Even the venerable Muslim social is a thing of bygone era in this quest to cater to everyone at the same time. Karan Johar felt comfortable shifting the “desi” part of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil from Lahore to Lucknow, and few even noticed. (Why it was based in Lahore is a topic for another day). Cultural references of today’s Hindi films are limited to talking about other Bollywod films, sometimes old films of the same “hero”. The cult of the star overshadows all else. It is not a coincidence that, not adjusted for inflation, all but one of the biggest hits have starred a Khan or another. When the content is good, like in Dangal or Sultan, the film reaches the top, but even decidedly subpar films like Kick and Dhoom 3 find a place in all time top 10, stamped with the brand of one Khan or another.

Bahubali 2 is the odd one out in this group. Prabhas, even after Bahubali (2015) is a relatively unknown entity for most of the Hindi speaking audience, and Rajamouli is a name only a select few would even have heard. What propelled Bahubali 2 then to reach and surpass all the carefully concocted brews of the Mumbai film industry? Heart and soul. No one can deny the Bahubali films wear their hearts on their sleeves. They deal with the most basic, but most profound, emotions of love, greed, compassion, jealousy and loyalty. But more than that they deal with the most basic conflict of the soul: between good and evil. In the modern, villain-less world of Hindi films, all decisions are relative, morality is boring, and decisions are only about what makes the hero, or the heroine, happy. Morality is so 20th century, the characters seem to drawl, but they miss the point of making a connection.

The soul is all about making choices. For most, if not nearly all, of us these choices are rooted in the tales we hear. I have often heard that for every moral dilemma you face, Mahabharat has the moral & immoral choices and their consequences spelled out for you. The culture, the mythology, the heroes and villains give us roots. The Bahubali films build on these values. Remember first heroic act of the hero in both the films. In the first one he lifted the Shivalingam to help his mother fulfill her sacred vow, and in the second he fights and subdues an elephant to help his mother fulfill her sacred vow. This combination of the dutiful and loving son, the devoted mother, and the sacred can never be expected in a Bollywood film of today. Of course it helped that that soul was delivered with a huge dose of the spectacular, but even that is something the Hindi films of late have been underperforming on. Ambition has been hamstrung by a lack of confidence. Ambition requires risk, not a calculation of “safe” bets to reach the 100 or the 200 crore “club”.

The very essence of clubs is elitism. Even though it is a story of royalty, Bahubali films totally eschew that. Instead they focus on the heroes as the heroes of the masses, happy to live amongst the masses and work for the masses. The elites sometimes can’t “get” what makes this special. This spills over beyond Bollywood as when they are left totally bewildered when a mass leader arises. The wine sipping back room manipulators are taken by a surprise, much like Bhallaldev’s father was in Bahubali.

Bahubali is a spectacular technical achievement. It is a tribute to the hard work of Rajamouli, Prabhas and many many more, but it is not about them. Bahubali is a film about the Indian masses. How rooted they are in their lives, how attached they are to their roots, what they think their heroes ought to be, and what ambition they seem to seek from those who sell them dreams. The dream industry needs to dream bigger and smaller at the same time. Are they up to the challenge?

(Lot of these ideas have been liberally borrowed from conversations with Irfan Khan, one of my gurus on films)

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The Underdogs

I rarely root for the underdogs. I mean when Kenya plays Australia and wins, its not the best men who won, its the lucky ones. Why would I root for luck, rather than ability?

But sometimes being an underdog has nothing to do with ability. You just weren’t given the same chances. Like in Lal Rang. It is about people in a mufassil town with no money, who are happy if they get to be lab technicians. But they want more. The central character whom the movie follows is no hero. There are no heroes in the film, really. But first, the theme. 
The rarest colour of comedy in Bollywood is Black. When you are laughing but whats happening is neither light, not happy. You still laugh because, well, because it is clever. Remember Jane Bhi Do Yaaron? Its a tragedy that you can’t stop laughing at.
Lal Rang has hardly any joy. It has a dark red theme, and it is about an issue. It is about the buying and selling of blood in Haryana about a decade ago. There was a huge scandal and many lives were destroyed because the “donors” sold too much of their blood, and their blood carried several problems way too often. Already sounds like a boring, preachy movie, doesn’t it?
It isn’t. It never preaches, it just shows what happens. and it helps that it has a great actor at its heart. Randeep Hooda is the kingpin of the operation that steals, buys and sells blood. He manages a network of thieves, professional donors, lab technicians, and doctors, but he does it with ease, with a laugh and a kind word, he says that even when he has to beat up people, he’s never angry, he does it with affection. Hooda is a powerhouse. His energy keeps the film afloat and makes it almost possible to forgive everyone for their crimes. 
Almost. Because you know that as you are following these guys, in the background are blood shortages, and a market full of desperate people being fleeced in their hour of need. There are no heroes in the film. 
But there are no monsters either. The guys are all too human, preoccupied with impressing girls, and fighting for their love. Ordinary people. This is the most human look at crime I can remember in recent times. It is brutal, gripping, dark, but funny at the same time. 
And it is going to get totally and utterly overlooked. “Major” critics like Masand have not even seen it fit to review the film. The excellent music is not playing anywhere. There is no talk of Randeep Hooda winning awards, even though he deserves them all for this film. This film, with a newish director, no item song, no brand name star, and a basis in reality is the ultimate underdog. Not because its not good, but because the system is stacked against it. The Janta is not pulled into cinema because of raw quality. Even Badlapur and NH 10 needed stars to succeed. 
So this is the underdog I want to support. Not trash like Fan, this is the kind of cinema we deserve, and we should fight for. Lets do that, lets just watch the film and fight for cinema’s underdogs. 

What the Dickens: A review of Fitoor

 

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When I first heard that Abhishek Kapoor is making a screen adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, I cheered. The guy who could make an awful Chetan Bhagat novel into Kai Po Che can potentially do wonders with this masterpiece of a novel. Alas, this is not an adaptation of Great Expectations. Not in its spirit.

Fitoor is the story of a guy’s obsession with an unattainable girl. A poor Kashmiri artisan boy with a penchant for art is invited into a feudal lady’s manor. He falls for her daughter and spends the rest of the movie pursuing that obsession.

That, in a nutshell, is what the film is about. A love story. There are the same characters as Great Expectations, but they just are insignificant. The strict sister and kindly brother in law, the mysterious lady, the escaped convict, the friend in the city, the mysterious benefactor…. But all of them, except the lady, are just placeholders. The only aspect that matters is the love story, and this film has a sorry excuse for a love story.

The title is the clue. Love has nothing to do with it, it’s about a Fitoor. A compelling obsession. Love comprises of tenderness, understanding, bonding, and a mutual respect. None of that nonsense in this movie. A child in early teens sees a girl and is entranced by her. She keeps rebuking his advances and he keeps making them till she gives in.

This movie starts in 90’s but should have travelled further back in time. This is a perfect 80’s film. The hero is talented and obsessed, and the heroine just for show. To be fair, the hero is not shy about exposing his muscled body, but at no point does the lead pair expose anything deep about themselves.

The movie is set in Kashmir but lacks the guts to tackle the politics beyond some platitudes about longing for peace. I think the only reason to choose Kashmir was to use the beauty of the land. The film is definitely shot beautifully. Kashmir is serene, sometimes desolate, beauty. Delhi party sets are a combination of sophistication and debauchery. And the art exhibits seem to demand a closer look than what the film permits.

Fitoor-4But engaging art installations do not make an engaging movie. The movie has to get us to care for its characters. And I never cared for the lead couple. A combination of ineffective writing and lackluster performance. And can someone please tell me why Katrina is a redhead in this film? Only the Lady played by Tabu engaged from time to time, but Tabu playing a lonely Kashmiri woman draws comparisons with her role in Haider. Compared to what she brought to that role, this is sleepwalking.

Great expectations was a novel about a boy growing up. It was about poverty and riches in Victorian England. It was about prisons and debts. This movie has stripped away all of that. The boy never really grows up; wealth and poverty never matter to him; and he was never that poor anyway. Even when venturing into a topic as juicy as a Kashmiri noble wedding a Pakistani minister, the writers don’t write anything more daring than “Aman Ki Asha” type cliches.

Sorry Mr Kapoor, but Great Expectations? More like dashed expectations.

Story, Identity, Spectacle: A Review Of Tamasha

It starts with a boy. An old guy under a tree narrating stories from all over the world to a child. And it moves to the grown hero making a friend, and more, with a girl without exchanging even their real names.

tamasha_640x480_51442924553It starts with the girl. Alone and then, not so alone, as she strikes a friendship with a stranger. With a promise to not remain friends. But you know how it is. They become more than friends. Get separated. They meet again, but she meets a completely different person when she meets him again. Gone was the reckless storyteller, the impulsive raconteur, the guy brimming with life, with weird ideas and stories. She found a corporate drone.

This is the story of that guy, and their relationship. This is a story of the usual middle class story we all are told and then we all attempt to replicate. Work hard at the “subjects”, study, work, die. Excellence, when it happens, is an accident. Happiness at job, if it happens, is happenstance. Happiness in life is defined by standard goals and predefined milestones.

This is about the chains that bind us, about the pain of the chains and the pain of breaking the chains. Is there liberation at the end of this tunnel, or have the chains dug so deep they’re now a part of us?

This is not perfect film. The weirdness becomes too much at times. The narrative is self-indulgent. The stories of the old storyteller are often too jumbled up to follow. About an hour in, I was scared about where it was going. But this is a film that grows. I suspect that may happen in more ways than one.

tamasha-2Imtiaz Ali has a bad habit of making films that become habit themselves. How many times have we seen Jab We Met? And I have revisited Rockstar several times, often gaining another perspective. This has the potential to be another such affair. But equally, I fear this will not be universally acclaimed. This will be a harder sell for the masses than even rockstar. The lead couple is my hope to give it a leg up.

Because the lead couple is great. Ranbir Kapoor is a chameleon throughout the film. His conversations with the mirror are fantastic. His immersion in his character at holiday, at work, and the progression through the film is flawless. But Deepika, in my view, is what made the screen sparkle. She infuses so much in her character I can imagine her lying utterly exhausted at the end of every shot. This film would have found it hard to sustain interest, despite all the clever writing, had she not been in it.

It is a truism that Rahman’s music grows on you. So do Imtiaz films. and when they collaborate, they create something slightly magical. A kind of slow, imperfect, emotional magic. I liked it. And I think I’ll watch it again. Give it a go. Expect weirdness.

In the classic love stories, heroes go in search of the heroine after they lose her. In Tamasha, the hero has to find himself. And thats what the movie is about.

The Edge That Hurts- A Review Of Talwar

Talwar. A sword is never meant to be a pleasant thing. It is supposed to hurt. You just hope that it hurts the right people, that it is used to serve justice. But how often does that happen, really? And who wields the sword?

Talwar is about tragedy. The tragedy of a double murder. A middle class family starts a day with murder. But did they just suffer it, or did they commit it? A young daughter and an older servant are dead. From the moment the police arrive at the scene, it is clear that nothing is going to go right in this investigation. Theories, rumours, insinuations, and a lot of bumbling follow, and arrest made. happy ending, right? But a few things don’t add up and a “higher” agency is called. They reach another conclusion, and its a fight between the two conclusions.

talvar-irrfan-khan-759But no matter who did it, the tragedy is immense. Either it was a murder by a parent, or a child was not safe in her own house, surrounded by people she loved. Both have chilling implications. And because this is not some slum, it is all the more chilling for the audience, sitting in the multiplex, imagining what brutalities lurk around their own home. There is nothing feel-good about this film. The humour is dark. You laugh at the ineptitude of a cop, but you realise that he might be the cop you need one day, and the chuckle feels like a punch in the gut.

Talwar has several moments that punch you in the gut. That make you feel that the justice system can go so horribly wrong. Prejudice, nasty rumours, and unfounded allegations are all made and accepted by the police. And worse, they are amplified by the media. Reporters running rough shod over crime scene is criminal by itself, but the depiction of TV media running a parallel investigation is chilling. The level of intrusion in an ordinary life is breathtaking.

It works. The hoopla of public gaze works to create an even shoddier investigation, even faster jumping to conclusions, and the need to deliver a result. A result, a conclusion, not justice. The pressure works. And so does the film.

talvar-2Vishal Bhardwaj is probably one of the most underrated dialogue writers of today. Every word uttered by the cast is useful and appropriate. And the cast itself is just superlative. Irfan Khan gives a rockstar performance, as usual. But the others are just as capable. Acting is about eliciting emotion, not just depicting them. From the local policemen and their tragic buffoonery to the reaction of parents, everything is tuned to make us feel just what the director wants us to.

And the director wants us to get angry. Meghna Gulzar has a last name that carries a heavy burden, but she quits herself with grace, restrain, and a lot of maturity. The film shows a system rotten to the core, where prejudices and pettiness combine to compound a tragedy into a tragic farce.

And it hurts. The film is not just about some Talwars, it is a talwar. It is a sword pointing at you, nudging you, coaxing you to rise from the comfortable slouch in your multiplex seat. It is meant to hurt, and it does. Because ultimately Talwar is not just about a small tragedy that befalls a family, it is about the larger tragedy of routine injustice.

Our Lives, Their Permission: The Legacy of DDLJ

More than “Raj, नाम तो सुना ही होगा”, more than “señorita”, even more than “आओ, आओ”, the dialogue that defines Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is “जा, सिमरन जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The eternal Bollywood blockbuster, second only to Sholay, if at all. A film way ahead of its times…. or was it?

It did start a decade long domination of romantic comedies, of Punjabi wedding songs, of family gatherings and of course of a Shahrukh Khan with his hands outstretched. It also kickstarted the NRI market as a major territory. It was a behemoth in business sense. A redefinition of Hindi commercial cinema. But what did it achieve cinematically, culturally?

Well, it reinforced a lot of stereotypes. Shahrukh and his friends are exactly the type of people mother warns you about. Party goers, beer drinking flirts who have had a bunch of girlfriends, and are serious about none. Any party girl is sure to fall prey to them.

The the heroine, thank God, is not one of “those” girls. She’s immune to his charms and traditional. Because she comes from a family that values tradition. Tradition, you see, is another name for oppression. An overbearing father longing for a long lost homeland that he left for greener pastures is trying to impose his longing on his London bred daughters.

Forced to live without any power over their own destinies, the girls seek pleasure in small rebellions of dancing to western music and dreaming of a Prince Charming. Even going on a trip with female friends requires a near meltdown. And then he pronounces “जा, जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी”. All magnanimous in granting an adult a vacation before she is forced to marry some stranger.

09ddlj2Her body, the property of parents, loaned for a month on the condition that it is returned unspoiled, returns. But the soul has tasted freedom. And yearns for more of the same. In the form of the boy who seems freedom personified. And the body is returned to beloved Punjab to be handed to the new owners: greedy, selfish, shallow and mean. The soul keeps hearing some half forgotten strings, till they become real, and with them comes the flirt, the playboy, the wayward. The free.

That he chooses “आदर्श नारी” over all the modern girls he’s met is no surprise. Indian heroes have always done that, laying down the rules for indian girls: be docile or be used and discarded. Well, he’s now decided he wants her, and comes to her, and they elope. No wait.

यहीं तो फ़िल्म offbeat हो जाती है। He decides to wait for paternal approval. Mother’s approval is not enough, because what do mothers know anyway. The father ultimately owns the body, and it’s his seal of approval that matters. Behind all the sweetness of family wedding is a strong patriarchal assumption that seemed wrong to me even in the 90’s, and seems almost cruel now.

The father who sells beer but moralizes on those who drink it, who doesn’t care what sort of home his daughter is going to, and who has taken all efforts to suppress his wife and daughters, and squeeze all personality out of them. That father is a sympathetic figure, quietly feeding his pigeons and clinging to the social mores of Victorian era. That’s the guy who needs to approve.

41Well, he doesn’t. Till he does, and with the last dialogue of the film, “जी ले अपनी ज़िंदगी” he permits his adult daughter to live her life as if doing a favor. That shadow of the great Amrish Puri still looms large in our films.

In Cocktail, Saif chooses demure Diana over Deepika who has personality. In Rockstar, the couple agonize over her marital status as if set in stone. In 2 States, the lead couple don’t marry till the parents approve. Long forgotten is the brave and brazen rebellion of “Ek Duje Ke Liye”. In countless movies since, countless incidents of injustice have seemed normal. Because DDLJ was such a successful film. Not just commercially, it was a great entertainer. It was charming, fresh and it wrapped its stale message in many layers of fresh looking wrappers. Not that DDLJ was more regressive than usual, it just made regressive “cool”.

No matter how charming though, the movie was dragging us backwards into elder worship, even when they are wrong.. No one in the world has the right to take away your right to your own life, and then give it back as a favor

The Disappointing And The Disappointed: Dil Dhadakne Do

Disappointment. It’s a loaded word. If all depends on context, doesn’t it? It doesn’t mean a failure. Not necessarily.

Dil-Dhadakne-Do-Movie-StillsJust look at the Mehras. The son, heir apparent to a business empire, has not  head for business. The daughter, expected to be a homemaker, is not obliging by getting pregnant. Their mother is seen as distant and manipulative by her children, and their father’s infidelities are the worst kept secrets of the “society”. The “samaaj” of 60’s has been replaced by the society, but the story is as old as indian cinema: a family drama.
Yeah. This is a true blue family drama. Sounds disappointing, doesn’t it? There are times when it verges on melodrama, and the climax is a total contrivance. Worst transgression in my opinion is the voice over exposition. We didn’t need the voice telling us what we need to feel at the moment.
But this is not you friendly neighbourhood melodrama. This is  drama proper. The parents, trapped by their own facade and the need for appearances, the the grown kids, still trapped by the expectations of their parents. This is a typical Zoya Akhtar film, and therefore its all about being true to yourself, and to the people you love. But mostly about yourself. It’s not selfish for you to run away from the responsibility of inheriting an empire, its selfish for them to expect you to.
Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 5.06.15 pmAnd as much as this is an individualist manifesto, its also a feminist one. Because feminism, at its core, is all about respecting the female individual equally. The acidic barbs of the mother in law of Priyanka’s character and the condescending, insufferable boredom of her husband are so heart breaking without making them villains. (Except in one unnecessary scene near the end). Similarly the parents, so easily villainies, are simply people grappling with their own problems. Shefali Shah playing the mother steals scene after scene with her portrayal of a woman who’s domineering and vulnerable at the same time. Anil Kapoor is great at playing the man playing at being a patriarch. Petty, selfish, and used to have his way. His acting is pretty good but it’s made even better by his children’s response. Both, especially Priyanka, seem like kids when confronted with him. Beautiful acting. Priyanka only lets her body to relax with her brother and her old flame, played by Farhan in a surprisingly small role.
A film about gorgeous rich people grappling with petty rich people problems on a cruise seems like a limited, unappealing concept. It’s made broader by making it universal. The issues are not specific to the rich. This is universal precisely because it’s about the smallest unit: the individual.
The comparisons with Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara are inevitable. Both occupy the same space, and that may be a problem. Farhan almost plays the same character in this, and Anushka is too similar to Katrina in the previous film. I compare this to Zoya’s debut, Luck By Chance and miss the delicious ending. But I can’t fail to delight in an intelligent story, brilliantly acted. This is an exquisite venture. Note the song Galla Pooriyan. It’s a single shot dance number with about a 100 moving people. I was mesmerized by it.
If her previous ventures were four star, this is distinctly three, three and a half. Gratification and disappointments are all about expectations. I kept looking for a rougher edge here, a sliver of quirk; and the best we got is a spectacled little girl with maybe four lines in the film. All of them brilliant. Bring her more centerstage, and push out the irritating pontification by the dog going on and on about how weird humans are. Then we’ll be talking about something remarkable.
So yes, to people expecting the world of Zoya Akhtar and the superb cast, this may be a slight disappointment. But this is not a failure. Not at all.