Monday, December 5, 2011

Three Idiots

When Indians would pooh-pooh Bollywood masala to me, I used to cite a list of great Bollywood films to make them admit they actually do like good masala movies. Now, I just mention 3 Idiots. FTW!

For those of you who still don't get Bollywood, the masala formula is, roughly, this: singing, dancing, comedy, drama, melodrama1, death, birth, a monsoon dance number--and maybe a fight scene--a movie that you, your kid sister, your prudish Auntie and your dad can all watch and enjoy without boredom or embarrassment. A good one should make you laugh, cry, and hum the best song for a week. A great one will do all that, and maybe even change the way you view the world.

The formula has grown pretty tired in the last fifteen years, as younger directors have edged--or run screaming--away from it. Writer-director Rajkumar Hirani and his co-writer Abhijat Joshi ran screaming into it and made masala wildly entertaining and meaningful again. And they did it with the dull subject of education reform. Is there anything so boring these two couldn't transform it into something magical? (The History of Indian Mud maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.) This is a movie for the whole family, even your foul-mouthed Auntie and the snobbish professor Uncle who claims he hasn't seen a Bollywood film since Pakeezah.

First, the quibbles: I usually LOVE Boman Irani, but his character in this didn't quite work for me; the birth scene almost breached my threshold for corn; and, the film lags a bit in the middle. But the rest of the movie is so sweethearted and so much fun those diddling things don't matter much in the grand scheme. The slapstick and sight gags are inspired, the melodrama moving, the corn sweet, the musical numbers dazzling. Hirani and Joshi use the masala formula with appreciation, to support the film's many moments of more subversive comedy and finely-tuned drama. The camera-mounted copter scene still haunts me. The ending still makes me laugh.

What an ingenious and irresistible vehicle for its message, to foster talent, question authority, think outside the box, and foremost, provide education for all. Idiots was a megahit all over India--across all demographics. It got the whole country talking about education reform, just as the Indian parliament was taking on the long-awaited Right to Education bill. Beyond India and the overseas NRI2 markets, it has a fervent cult following in Hollywood and is now a viral hit among Chinese youth. Reports say Stephen Chow, no less, will adapt and direct a Chinese version.

In their previous film, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Hirani and Joshi took on Gandhism and political corruption in their own smart-silly way. Their next is rumored to be about "Godmen," i.e., yogis, gurus, priests, mullahs et al. (They are proliferating with the mass media in India. It seems like every third channel on TV is someone in holy robes preaching the truth according to him. Also, peddling his spiritual books, DVDs and eponymous brand of ayurvedic herbal products.)

UPDATE: Aamir Khan and Hirani will team up again for Hirani's next movie.

1 What's melodrama to the middle and upper classes is everyday life for many in India. Idiots handled this well, showing the absurd sacrifices already poor people have to make to send a child to school, even on scholarship.

2 Non-resident Indian.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shiva and Shakti

Catching up on my Indian film reading...interesting how so much of the groundbreaking cinema (and television) these days, comes from potent male-female partnerships--husbands and wives, brothers and sisters--notably: Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao at AKP, Anurag Kashyap and Kalki Koechlin, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar at Excel, Ekta and Tushar Kapoor at Balaji. So Indian, so organic.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Big B in 3D Great Gatsby, WSJ and NYT

Amitabh Bachchan has been tapped to co-star with Leonardo Dicaprio and Tobey Macguire in Baz Luhrman's 3D Great Gatsby, in a juicy character role as Meyer Wolfsheim, inspired by real-life gangster Arnold Rothstein.

More proof that America is starting to take India very seriously.... The Wall Street Journal has revamped and beefed up their India coverage and added a Bollywood blogger to their India Real Time line-up....

And the New York Times has launched a whole new blog on India, called India Ink, with an impressive list of contributors.

Hollywood and the western media woke up to India in a big way the last ten years. I'm waiting for western publishing to do the same. So far, they seem oblivious to India's lit boom. But I predict in the next two years every author who can will be maneuvering, manipulating and sweet-talking their way into Indian litfest invitations. (I could predict which ones will, but I'll keep that to myself. :) )Link

Friday, September 2, 2011


"Shoaib Mansoor is rapidly becoming the flag-bearer for new Pakistani cinema."

"The film is a tour de force, both in terms of the performances by the two main protagonists, daughter Humaima and father Manzar and in the narrative which spills over with umpteen twists and turns, geared to shock and shake you up, with their horrific tenor. If Humaima Malik is picture perfect as the rebellious daughter who dares to question her father and even take drastic measures to ensure that justice prevails amidst all the inequity, then Manzar Sehbai is magnificent as the tyrannical man who is desperate to hang on to family honour and moribund traditions." (TOI)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Dirty Picture

The Dirty Picture, the Silk Smitha biopic, is generating much chatter after the release of the official promos.

Smitha, a South Indian movie heroine, died in 1996, a probable suicide at age 36. For that and other reasons, she draws comparisons to Marilyn Monroe.

Normally, I dislike those E!nglish parallels ("He's India's George Clooney!" "She's India's Meryl Streep!") But in this case, it's less about putting it into a western context for easier digestibility, and more about something universal that connects both Marilyn and Silk, women who arose in puritannical times and shook all the timbers with their unbridled and complex sexuality, before being consumed.

Silk took on bolder roles than Marilyn however: "A vast majority of her movies are softcore and a common theme is her playing a freakishly strong agent in skimpy bikinis beating up huge thugs." (Wikipedia) More Silk Smitha videos here.

Produced by Ekta Kapoor of Balaji Films, directed by Milan Luthria and starring Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Tusshar Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bollywood in Britain

Stumbled into a great blog today. Read about Bollywood's impact on one British-Pakistani woman. Enjoy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breakaway/Speedy Singhs: Shera Di Kaum

First song from Breakaway, aka Speedy Singhs, Akshay Kumar's Indo-Canadian production about a Sikh ice hockey team, opening soon, with Akki, Russell Peters, Ludacris, Rob Lowe, Anupam Kher and newcomer Vinay Virmani, who also co-wrote the script:

And here is the trailer:

Opens in India September 23rd, 2011. Co-Produced by Akshay Kumar and Paul Gross (Canada's Akshay Kumar).

Trivia: There is a thriving ice hockey league in Leh, Ladakh in Northern India. The head of India's ice hockey association is also named...Akshay Kumar. They should have a mini-premiere in Leh, with the other Akshay.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Monkey at My Window

He is watching me write. Our eyes meet and he squeals quietly. The rains have let up, briefly, and the monkeys are everywhere, looking for food. Yesterday, I took my trash to the dumpster up the hill and when I threw it in a large monkey jumped out the other side. I put potatoes and cucumbers out on the road for them, away from the building so as not to tame them or get too close. Wild monkeys, especially wild forest monkeys who are hungry, can get aggressive.

This ain't Gorillas in the Mist, although the valley below is filling with mist as I write this. At the moment, it's light, making the vista an impressionist painting. In about 20 minutes it will be white-out fog. More heavy rain forecast for tonight.

Monsoon rain is not a downpour--it's more like intermittent explosions of ocean so dense they can almost knock you unconscious. After a few days of heavy rains everything inside is damp and matches won't light. If you're caught out in it, your average telescopic umbrella is a feeble defense. People carry big, sturdy umbrellas with enormous wingspans, making it difficult and dangerous to navigate crowded bazaar lanes during monsoon without losing an eye. Throw in a couple of cows and a few auto rickshaws for extra fun.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Reviews for ZNMD, Zoya Akthar's new movie from Excel Entertainment, look great across the board. Since the dialogue, written by Zoya's brother Farhan, is noted in the reviews I'll have to wait for a subtitled version. The Hindi will be too nuanced for me.

Excel shook up the masala formula at the turn of the century with Dil Chahta Hai, another film about three young men finding themselves, and did another great road movie, Honeymoon Travels, a few years ago. Despite the similarities in theme, the three films are radically different. Produced by Ritesh Sidhwani.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Travel to Live

I ran into a French artist hiking with a monk. She said: "It is cheaper to travel than to rent an apartment in Paris, so I travel." A horde of other European backpackers have the same idea, many more than I've encountered before on the road, outside of Europe bien sur. European backpackers are a different breed from the more upscale tourists-- not as fussy or standoffish, generally speaking1. Fluent English helps: It makes them more open, confident and approachable.

More than that, it's some shared philosophical foundation that makes them gentle rebels, at least here.

My friend Vineet says, "Most westerners who stay long enough in India turn into hippies2." You confront your middle-class, and often fair-skin, privilege here pretty much every day. It's hard to stay entitled and judgmental when you are face to face with the gross unfairness of the world and the folly of your petty complaints.

I've noticed more Chinese backpackers, traveling independently instead of in supervised groups. And they are out there, not huddling to themselves but engaged with other travelers, dancing, passing the chillum, singing at some primitive dusty 19th century tea house with a 21st century karaoke machine, discussing the state of the planet. They too speak English. The English-haters of the world need to get over it. It may not be the most beautiful language in the world, but it is the most useful. It's a good language, one that easily embraces and incorporates other languages. It's masala.

1 Happily, some things are eternal. You don't want to get on line at a coffee place behind some Euro guy painstakingly explaining to the barista how to make a correct coffee.

2 Vineet also said that Feringhi backpackers always tell him they aren't coming to India to find themselves, but they almost always do.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

New India

"There are so many ‘caste no bar’ ads in the matrimonials now," I said to my friend Pramod.

"Yeah, ‘Caste no bar. Must make minimum six figures a month,’" he said.

(100,000 rupees=1 lakh=$2275 approx.)

Still thinking about Delhi Belly.

Kurt: “Hollywood couldn’t get away with some of that stuff.”
Pramod: “Only Aamir Khan could.1

The burqa sequence is comic genius. Imran Khan breaks out of his ‘chocolate boy’ image. Vir Das is hilarious, as always. Kunal Roy Kapoor was something of a revelation for me. His character was so sweetly corrupt. He was endearing.

Western critics in particular cite Hangover and other American movies as an influence. Not as much as they think. There has always been dark comedy and scat humour in India—Hindi is rich with great insults and dark, earthy jokes. DB’s humor is very much indigenous, but will translate well overseas. Does everyone know that South Asians prefer water to toilet paper?2 If you know this, then you’ll never look at a juice box the same way again.

While there have been a few dark comic gems in Indian films, most film humor here has been of the escapist slapstick variety of masala films or the gentle and/or satirical strain of the parallel cinema. As a screen genre, dark comedy really came into its own with Khosla ka Ghosla in 2006. Great film.

Adult Comedy

DB is the first, flat-out adult movie I’ve seen in India, but there have been signs and groundbreakers before. Mahesh Bhatt and Anurag Basu have dealt frankly with sexual topics in their films, and there is some racy simulated sex in Gangster.3 Dhoom 2 has the most twisted and delicious kissing scene. Last’s year’s Turning 30 gave us a modern heroine who has sex on her own terms.

1 I suspect, also, that someone fabulous with the initials ST has been loosening screws on the Censor Board.

2 I read a study that showed water (plus the left hand) is more sanitary than toilet paper.

3 Gangster stars Kangna Ranaut, Shiney Ahuja and Emraan Hashmi. Hashmi is known as the “serial kisser” for his many on-screen kisses. Evidently, I am in the minority here: I like Hashmi’s acting and hate his kissing. It always makes me think of Dave Barry’s great line after Al and Tipper Gore’s on-stage kiss at the 2000 Democratic convention: “He looked like a lizard depositing an egg sac in the mouth of his mate.”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Delhi Belly

GAME CHANGER. Funniest movie I've seen in I don't know how long. Should translate well in most markets. Young audience, laughing nonstop. The Censor Board must have been drunk (and thank God). This movie does things Hollywood couldn't get away with, notes American friend Kurt. Written by Akshat Verma, directed by Abhinay Deo, and well acted all around. Watch for a wicked turn by Vijay Raaz (who played Dubey the wedding planner in Monsoon Wedding), and for a great Mexican Standoff.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

RK Narayan

I just finished R.K. Narayan's The Ramayana, one of three books I bought as seed books to trade with other travellers (but now don't want to part with). Recommended.

Narayan's bio here.

Narayan and the Chelsea Hotel. (Page down for the story)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Buy This Book: Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield

I am reading a book called Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, first published in 1940 and recently republished by Penguin India. It is one of the best books I've ever read. Set in Bombay during the 1930s, it looks at the lives of ex-pats and Indian royals--and the Indians who work for them. He is one of the few writers I can say has genuine understanding and empathy for all his characters--not the pop psych kind that passes today for empathy (and often seems tinged with sniffy disapproval) but something so keen and profound and without agenda it changes the way you view everything and everyone. He was also a conservationist looong before it was fashionable and founded the Malabar Farm in Ohio. I'd heard of him before in relation to his book The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg, although I've never read it or any of his other works (I shall read them all now). It's a literary novel with just enough potboiler to keep me entertained.

Review from The Hindu.

Wikipedia page
Works in the Public Domain
Buy this book


One of the things I loved about this book, not just for the author's time but for ours, is the way he saw each character as an individual sexual being, and writes with frankness and sympathy about sex, without vulgarity, neurosis (Fitzgerald), or the jarring coyness of Hemingway, for example. One of the reviews noted that he stereotypes. But rarely, and never with cruelty, and all the stereotypes are somehow subverted by the end. The example cited, a generalization about coolies who become drivers, struck me differently. I saw it as a generalization, but one imbued with empathy. Coolies are human beasts of burden and I thought he had sharp insight into what it must be like to go from that state to being in control of a powerful machine.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bollywood 101: Who's Who

Flare, a Canadian magazine for women, has done a who's who feature on Bollywood in advance of the IIFA Awards in Toronto (in no particular order).

They've missed quite a few, like Dharmendra and Hema Malini, but still, a good primer.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Canada goes Bollycrazy/Breakaway

Toronto is really going all out for the upcoming IIFA awards. Flash mobs, dance contests, and plenty of media coverage. Wish I could be there but I had a choice, TO for a week or India for six months, and I chose India. It seems surprising Akshay Kumar isn't on the list of attendees, as he is huge in Canada and has this movie coming out in the fall:

Yeah. I'm there.

Friday, June 10, 2011

No One Killed Jessica: Rani Mukherjee

Rani made the smart move, ducking out of Bwood, and Romcoms, for a while to re-emerge in a smart, sophisticated role in No One Killed Jessica. This is the perfect role for her. Good movie, great cast, Rani shines and Vidya Balan is superb as usual. Based on the true story of the murder of Jessica Lall.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Delhi: Quick Takes

Going back and forth to India makes the change here stand out dramatically. It has been a year, and things jumping out at me:

Streets are much cleaner in Delhi, traffic more orderly and everything much more expensive. Must be the Commonwealth Games effect.

Much more coverage in the media of political and business scandals, much less of sex scandals.

Following: Ramdev black money movement.

Watching: No One Killed Jessica.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Delhi Belly: DK Bose

Here is the first music vid from Delhi Belly, a dark comedy coming soon from ground shakers Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao and Ronnie Screwvala:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bollywood 101

Mixed reviews for the Bollywood tribute at Cannes, critics divided but audience reportedly enthusiastic. Reading the reviews makes me want to see it even more. 81 minutes of the best of Hindi film's musical numbers would be heaven to me--like an uber-wonderful YouTube playlist on the big screen. Orgasmic. For Bollywood greenhorns, however, it could be baffling, I imagine.

I learned a long time ago not (NEVER!) to watch an Indian film for the first time with a friend who is not familiar with Bollywood, because I would have to stop the video every few minutes to answer a question: why is he touching her feet--what does that head gesture mean--what's so funny--who's he.... On subsequent viewings, okay--that's how I learned much of what I know too, by asking a lot of questions. But the first time I see a film, I want to enjoy it, uninterrupted.

By now, after decades of immersion in Hindi film, I can't be completely objective about the cultural barriers for the Gora (English subtitle: white people.)

There are great resources on the web. Bollywhat is an excellent, encyclopedic Bollywood 101 site, and for thoughtful AND hilarious reviews and analysis from a gori POV Beth Loves Bollywood is read by everyone.

Now what's needed is a comprehensive, multimedia Bwood 101 site combining the wit and knowledge of the above filmmakers and bloggers with a user-friendly format like that of the new Dhunio, with videos, wiki and witty commentary from viewers, bloggers, critics, and stars.

Putting it out there in the universe....

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Watching For...

Shor in the City, a dark comedy from producer Ekta Kapoor. Reviews from a few exclusive screenings verge on ecstatic.

Yet more to look forward to from Ekta Kapoor...she's producing a film about tragic South Indian vamp Silk Smitha.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New York Indian Film Festival

If you are in the tri-state area, make time for the NYIFF. The programming is inspired, from the opening film, a graceful updating of the masala formula, to arthouse to shorts from the Whistling Woods film school to crowd-pleasing documentaries like The Bengali Detective to the centerpiece film, a new Aparna Sen movie. More information here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cannes: Bollywood

Tribute to Bollywood made by Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") especially for Cannes will be shown out of competition at the festival. Here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I Am

I Am, the new film by Onir ("My Brother Nikhil"), opens in India April 29th after about a year of wet kisses from world film festivals. It's co-produced by actor/producer Juhi Chawla, the most understated but effective powerhouse in Indian Film. Onir's films explore sexuality, identity, class and personal politics in an India still largely bound by tradition, but rapidly changing and forcefully testing those restraints. Onir is comprised of four short films, each based on a true story:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Xtreme City: Dicaprio

According to screenwriter Mushtaq Sheikh, as quoted by numerous news outlets and blogs now, Leonardo DiCaprio and Shah Rukh will co-star in Xtreme City, written by Sheikh, to be directed by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), and co-produced by Martin Scorsese and SRK's Red Chillies Entertainment. DiCaprio and SRK would play friends who served together as UN peacekeepers in Somalia, and went their separate ways, DiCaprio becoming a New York cop and Shah Rukh a gangster in Mumbai.

The Mumbai underworld is very dark and complex--but often inadvertently hilarious--a rich vein. I don't think you could put together a better team for this story.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2011: Shah Rukh Khan

Shah Rukh Khan has been so quiet lately--but it's not cause for concern I hope. When the man has something to say he says it (see "My Name is Khan.") I expect the silence now is due to the secrecy of his upcoming scifi epic Ra.One. Advance publicity for this is just a couple of stills.

Also on tap for 2011, Excel's Don 2.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

USC-Tata and Indian Film Schools

University of South Carolina is partnering with Indians to foster more film education in India. There are two prestigious film schools that I know of, one in Delhi and then Whistling Woods in Mumbai, plus arts programs with film components in other places. (Not sure about Bangalore.) It goes both ways. In the west, more courses are now offered on Indian film. All good.

I wonder if film schools like UCLA and NYU have plans to do similar things.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Aamir Khan in Dhoom 3

It's confirmed. Aamir will play the villain in the third installment of the Dhoom series. Earlier, reports said Hrithik Roshan, who played the anti-hero in Dhoom 2, would also be in 3, but I see no mention of that now. Previous Dhoom director Sanjay Gadhvi has moved on and 3 will be directed by Dhoom screenwriter Vijay Acharya.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011: Now for something completely different....

...from Vishal Bhardwaj (Omkara), based on story by Ruskin Bond:

I'm told Priyanka Chopra's performance is virtuoso. 7 Khoon Maaf is one of three films out of India going to the Berlin Film fest, along with The Bengali Detective and Gandu (note to self: must see Gandu --the word is Hindi for 'asshole.').

And from Aamir Khan Productions (featuring the voice of Amitabh Bachchan):

I'm hooked.

Elsewhere...I am keeping my eyes on Excel Entertainment for some radically innovative masala in 2011.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mixed Reviews for Dhobi Ghat/Film Journos

Dhobi Ghat grabbed lavish praise on the world cinema circuit, but is getting mixed reviews from Indian critics who either love it or dislike it--nobody seems to hate it. (I haven't had a chance to see it, but I generally love what Khan-Rao do.) This happened a lot this last year, with My Name is Khan, Ravaan, and Kites--exuberant reviews from foreign critics, and a mixed bag from the reviewers at home. Hmmm. Goes the other way too, I imagine. Spiderman 3 was huge in India as I recall.

Update: Roger Ebert just weighed in on Dhobi Ghat on Twitter, calling it "hot-hot."

Was there a golden age of film journalism in India? I think that golden age might be now. The writing about film in India is more entertaining and relevant than most of the movies covered.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Name?

Because there is a television show called Bombay Talkies, and I've discovered, several other blogs with the same title, I've decided to find a new name for this one and am taking suggestions. (The url will remain the same.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

No One Killed Jessica

Based on the true story of the Jessica Lall murder, and how two women galvanized a movement to get justice. The Economist gives it a very good review and commends the "lighter touch" it takes.