Fire

[Screenshot]Again I return to the Indian drama, since it’s a lot more digestible to my sensibilities than the musicals are. This is not exactly Chandni Bar; it’s a lot less cautious with its characterization. and its themes, and sets up straw men to be knocked down by a rather unsubtle lesbianism-saves-the-day element.

I don’t have a problem with gay themes, and I’ve historically found a lot of films that took them interesting places, but there are serious problems in the construction of Fire, that every single male character in the film is a bad person, ranging from Ashok at the best (whose celibacy is not a problem, but his objectification of Radha is), to Jatin (whose adultery is at least convincingly portrayed) to Mundu (who’s simply cartoonishly evil). This may be demonstrative of a certain kind of family life, and it provides a useful social context in which Radha and Sita’s relationship faces emphatic hostility, but as a backdrop for gay self-discovery, it’s actively harmful, since it makes Radhu and Sita’s relationship less “discovering where their true attractions lie” and more “pursuing romantic involvement with the only person in each of their lives who is not obviously horrible”. In spite of all that, there’s some good chemistry, and when it’s just the two of them on the screen, one can believe that they actually fell in love with each other rather than settling for each other. But all in all, despite the good chemistry between the leads and the tension between their love and their societal role, I have real problems recommending this one.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar

[Screenshot]I read that there was a Bollywood remake of Breaking Away, and figured I had to see this singular oddity. I’ll admit I don’t necessarily understand the whole Indian-musical thing, despite occasionally watching them, and my ability to figure out the musical bits was not helped in this case by the unfortunate decision not to subtitle the songs.

It recognizably contains significant elements of Breaking Away, but makes some interesting changes to the dynamics around the lead character. First of all, he’s basically split in two, and the talented cyclist is his “good brother” Ratan: the one his father likes, who doesn’t get into trouble, and who eventually has to step aside for the real protagonist, his troublemaker brother Sanjay; Sanjay doesn’t much resemble Breaking Away‘s Dave either, and is distinctly lacking in admirable characteristics. Granted, that makes his eventual redemption that much more satisfying, but he isn’t even likeable for much of the film. Part of what makes him unlikeable is the resctructuring of the family dynamic: while the father in Breaking Away was a rather clownish caricature played largely for laughs, Sanjay’s father is presented as a responsible businessman and father who is materially hurt by Sanjay’s selfishness.

The cinematography is pretty satisfactory although the colors always seem a bit washed-out, which is probably a technical or budget issue. The music is pretty standard Indian musical fare, which I don’t differentiate well. The subtitles were competent, as far as I can tell.

I’m not sure if this movie is particularly worth seeing on its own merits, but it’s definitely a distinct take on the basic plot of Breaking Away, which is certainly well wrthwhile if you either liked Breaking Away or like Bollywood musicals (or both!). It runs a bit long, though.

Incidentally, even though most of the film is in Hindi, people (mostly the prep-school girls) say “OhmyGod!” in English an awful lot.

See also: IMDB, .

వనజ/Vanaja

[Screenshot]This is a peculiar film, proving that you can do all kinds on a budget. So often low-budget films wander off into niches, usually on the comedy end of the spectrum. Vanaja is actually pretty mainstream in its plot and target audience (Sure, being an Indian film makes it non-mainstream in America, but there’s nothing inherently niche about its genre). It is surprisingly effecting for a film which, one might think, was not primed to succeed. The actors are untrained, and the roughness of their delivery comes through in places; likewise, the cinematic technique is unambitious and very simple. These interfere with the film’s efficacy very little, in the end: it’s unpolished and raw, but that seems to work well with the story it’s telling. I definitely get a very strong sense of place: it really feels rural, and isolated, and as if a fairly insignificant landlady and her son, a comparatively minor official, can actually rule the region so despotically. The story it tells is upsettingly realistic, although some of the lacunae in the storytelling make the flow of events seem a bit rushed.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Slumdog Millionaire

[Screenshot]So, Slumdog Millionaire. I always feel unequal to trying to write something original about these extravaganzas that everybody has watched. I view my niche as obscure stuff most people haven’t heard of. I too liked Slumdog,but I don’t know what it was exactly that made it work for me. It didn’t bowl me completely over, but it kept me absorbed and interested. Some things which hit the right spots for me, though, were the nonlinear narrative, and the sense of the ordinary melding with the extraordinary: the story seesaws crazily between fantastical elements (whose extraordinariness is itself in some doubt) and the mundane life of people who are, in their own way, rather ordinary. Thematically, there are some open-ended games on what defines the characters: are they products of their experiences, or pawns of fate? Danny Boyle wants very much to suggest the latter, I think, but just because the director says so doesn’t mean I have to agree.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Chandni Bar

[Screenshot]Still hunting for an Indian film that really works for a Western audience. I’m trying something a bit different here: Chandni Bar throws off a lot of the typical Bollywood trappings here. There are no musical interludes in this one (there is pop music and a lot of dancing, but it revolves around the life of a bar dancer, so how could it not?). It’s a bleak story, full of violence and rape and degredation, and by the end it feels almost physically oppressive (it doesn’t help, of course, that it’s, like most Indian films, quite long). There’s a ray of sunshine in the middle, when it seems like it can end happily, which is just cruelty on the part of the filmmakers.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this film, in any meaningful sense of the word, but I can give it credit for accomplishing what it set out to do, which is to make me uncomfortable and take me out of my bubble.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

बावर्ची/Bawarchi

[Screenshot]I am way behind on these things, so I’m struggling to remember things. Bawarchi, then. I’ve caught Indian cinema kind of peripherally on a number of occasions, and been perplexed by it. It’s apparently the biggest film market in the world, and it makes no sense to me at all. But I figured I needed to at some point devote some time to actually trying to watch Indian cinema, instead of just sort of being exposed to it. I opted for comedy — I get the impression a lot of the classic Indian dramas are Romeo-and-Juliet-type things with seemingly inappropriate musical numbers. Bawarchi was what I got, and I have to say, in the end, I sort of dug it, but it was a bit long for what it was, all things considered. It’s a lighthearted story of a hopeless household and its capable majordomo (cook, technically, hence the film’s title), and the various sketches of his ameliorating their situation. It was extraordinarily unpretentious, and I had a feeling of a Plautus play at points with the comic patter. It worked well enough, but as I said, for such light fare, ran a bit long. Even the ubiquitous musical numbers, which I’m given to understand no Indian film can be without, were fairly few and generally pretty good (I particularly liked the ensemble song to greet the morning).

So, anyways, I don’t know if I’ll delve into the depths of Indian film any further, but I checked one out and it was not nearly as alien as feared, and was in fact a quite delightful trifle.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.