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Bollywood Goes Blu

Dearie me. Out of sheer curiousity, I opted to glance at the date on which I last posted on this journal and it just happens to be one whole year ago. Two-year film courses are rather time-consuming. While the holidays are still ongoing, I shall take the opporchancity to make mention of the most news-worthy item Bollywood’s now-struggling industry has spluttered out in 2010 - that being the full-blown arrival of Blu-ray to Indian film releases.

It’s truly a treat to witness India’s movie output receive a more worthy treatment on a home video format which it has thus far failed to achieve (DVD now being an inexorably useless way of viewing Bollywood films with any thought given to quality). Such detail, clarity and crisp motion not before seen outside of a cinema can finally be enjoyed watching a Hindi film. This being Bollywood though, screw-ups were inevitable. While many Blu-ray discs offer outstanding quality, others do not - marred as they are by out-of-sync audio, botched brightness levels, waxy noise reduction (an annoyance even certain Hollywood Blu-rays are plagued with) and that old favourite: nonsense subtitles. Here is a choice selection of 10 recommended films currently on Blu-ray that have been given a reasonably high standard presention:

The Blue Umbrella, Dil Bole Hadippa, Dil To Pagal Hai, Dilwale Dulhanie Le Jayenge, Guru, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Jodhaa Akbar (UTV), Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Om Shanti Om, Taare Zameen Par

Sadly, equally as good movies are also available in less-than-stellar quality. Avoid the following 10 mucked-up discs:

Chak De India, Cheeni Kum, Devdas, Dil Chahta Hai, Fanaa, Jodhaa Akbar (Big Home Video), Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila, Swades, Tere Naam

Many more high quality discs are on sale, however the films themselves are less exceptional. Unless lots and lots of Akshay Kumar movies are your thing. Fans of Tamil cinema will also be chuffed to hear that 99% of the Blu-ray releases from distributer Ayngaran are of tremendous quality - though subtitles are, as ever, problematic.

Next week: More YouTube song clips. They’re easy to post!

Posted by Stephen on January 3rd, 2011

Dil Bole Hadippa!

DIL BOLE HADIPPA! (2009, d. Anurag Singh)

There are times when there’s just no pleasing some people. Or in the case of 2009’s cricketing comedy Dil Bole Hadippa! (’The Heart Yells Hooray!’), it would seem there are times when there’s just no pleasing anyone. How such a thoroughly delightful, warm-spirited romp could pass by virtually undetected as it did late last year, garnering little but shrugged shoulders from cinema-goers, truly boggles this Bolly-mad bloke’s brain. What was there not to adore? Two unhealthily attractive leads, a genuinely uproarious cross-dressing plot, one of the catchiest, dance-worthy soundtracks in recent years and boasting more unbridled energy than a Hadron Collider. All this plus more, yet what reactions does it provoke? “Rani’s too old… Not more Punjabi stuff… Sooo clichéd”. Killjoys, I tell thee. Killjoys!

Rani Mukerji plays plucky Veera, a girl who’s crackers about cricket and can run rings around even the male players in her small Punjabi neighbourhood. When village elder Vikram Singh (Anupam Kher) recruits his son, England cricketer Rohan (Shahid Kapoor), to coach his Indian team for a friendly game against their Pakistani rivals, Veera sets her sights on getting selected. After she is rebuffed by the male-only squad, she hatches a plan and swaps her tights for a turban - morphing from feisty female to stern sardar, fake beard ‘n’ all. Her daring scheme proves a success and Rohan takes the newly-named ‘Veer’ into the team, only to ask ‘him’ for an additional service: advice on how to woo ‘his sister’ Veera, with whom he has fallen in love with!


Shahid and Rani dance to ‘Discowale Khisko’, one of the decade’s best songs: See it!

Okay, so the premise may be thinner than Amy Winehouse standing sideways and, yeah, Punjabi culture has been celebrated/mocked in equally liberal doses already in Indian films (particularly by distributor Yash Raj Films), but when one is eating a meal that has been served countless times before yet has now been cooked to absolute perfection, should it be sent back to the kitchen or savoured with a generous tip left? My vote goes to the latter as I had a ball watching Dil Bole Hadippa!, a Bollywood romantic musical that admittedly has nothing new to offer the genre, but what it lacks in originality more than makes up for in sheer entertainment value.

Much of the fun is owed to star (yet strangely second-billed) Rani Mukerji in a comedic part that is poles apart from her role as a deaf-dumb-blind woman in 2005’s haunting drama Black, yet no less engaging. She’s clearly relishing the chance to take centre stage here, carrying the picture as she does single-handedly. Seldom have I seen any screen performer run the emotional gammit of laughs and tears with such stunning enthusiasm, all the while vigorously dancing up a storm inbetween. All other participants simply play second fiddle and with rumours abounding that Mukerji even ghost-directed several scenes, DBH! could easily be considered her baby. Which makes the resulting failure of the movie all the more disheartening. Perhaps audiences of Indian cinema just aren’t ready for a popcorn masala flick in which the girl runs the show, particularly when it’s Rani, who - at 31 - should be smearing white chalk in her dark hair and playing aunties by now as is Bollywood tradition. Certainly not acting alongside hunky Shahid Kapoor, an actor who is (gasp!) younger than she is.


Cross-dressing’s a drag

In a televised interview with filmmaker Karan Johar, Rani Mukerji once revealed that her own mother opined to her that Rani isn’t a fraction of how good an actress Madhuri Dixit was. And she was correct. She’s better. I remain hopeful that Bollywood’s Miss Dependable carries on defying expectations and delivering such lively films as Dil Bole Hadippa!, even though I sometimes fear it will be for nobody else’s benefit except mine. Surely somebody else out there likes this one. Anyone! Koi hai?

Posted by Stephen on January 4th, 2010

Bollywood’s twisted side

Well, it only took 3 years, but here at last is a post for the previously neglected ‘Memorable Melodies’ category, taking a glance over some of Bollywood’s greatest song sequences. Here, I’ve decided to heap much praise upon 10 of those magnificently mental rock ‘n’ roll numbers found only during the 60s and early 70s, when The Twist stayed alive and well in India long after Chubby Checker’s version had become passé in the West. If you happen to have seen director Terry Zwigoff’s wonderful 2001 comedy Ghost World, you’ll doubtless already have a clear indication of what to expect thanks to the film’s opening sequence, which is intercut with footage from one of Hindi cinema’s absolute wildest song-and-dance sequences. So what better place to start than with…

1. ‘Jaan Pehchaan Ho’ from Gumnaam (1965, Music by Shankar-Jaikishan)

Featuring enough violent hip and head-shakin’ to reduce any normal human being into a state of braincell-battered exhaustion, this Batman-on-Acid-style rocker features Laxmi Chhaya leading the pack, while choreographer Herman Benjamin lip-syncs to singer Mohammed Rafi’s frenetic vocals. Chhaya, despite her B-grade actress label, was nonetheless an incredibly energetic dancer who seemed to be constantly on the verge of giving herself whiplash thanks to her epileptic fit-esque moves.


Holy seizure! Laxmi Chhaya goes batty in 1965’s Gumnaam

2. ‘Aao Twist Kare’ from Bhoot Bungla (1965, Music by R.D. Burman)

Bolly comedy king Mehmood steals some thunder in a song competition from a none-too-impressed Tanuja, who has just delivered a heartfelt balled and now must sit and watch as the crowd goes mad for this hugely fun ‘Let’s Do The Twist’-inspired number.


Mehmood twists in 1965’s spooky comedy Bhoot Bungla

3. ‘Tumse Hai Dil Ko Pyaar’ from Janwar (1965, Music by Shankar-Jaikishan)

More plagiarism hijinks as Bollywood’s answer to Elvis, Shammi Kapoor, dons a Beatles wig and treats his leading lady Rajshree to a Hindi rendition of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. If this doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart, I must be forced to suggest that you have no soul.


Wacky wigs and demented dancing galore in 1965’s Janwar

4. ‘Tu Mera Main Teri’ from Pyar Hi Pyar (1969, Music by Shankar-Jaikishan)

It’s wall-to-wall hooks as classically-trained dancer Vyjayanthimala gets a rare chance to let loose (well, in a shyly restrained kinda way) in a full-on surf pop number as Dharmendra seeks her affections with little success, despite some enthusiastic fake guitar and trumpet playing.


Dharmendra blows while Vyjayanthimala boogies in 1969’s Pyar Hi Pyar

5. ‘Leja Leja’ from An Evening In Paris (1967, Music by Shankar-Jaikishan)

“My name is Suzie!”, ever so seductively coos the gobsmackingly beautiful Sharmila Tagore to kick of this fashion nightmare and musical dream of a sequence set to the tune of The Shadows’ ‘Man Of Mystery’. Check out über villain Pran’s bronze wig!


Pran gets an eyeful of Sharmila Tagore in 1967’s An Evening In Paris

6. ‘Tum Haseen Main Jawan’ from Tum Haseen Main Jawan (1970, Music by Shankar-Jaikishan)

More crazy hairpieces highlight this one that sees cutie Hema Malini sport a glittery blue mop on her noggin while snuggling up to future husband Dharmendra as some groovy sitar interludes break up the rock ‘n’ roll. Oh, and there’s dancing sailors and sailorettes aplenty.


“Care to find out if it’s my natural colour?” 1970’s Tum Haseen Main Jawan

7. ‘Pretty Pretty Priya’ from Priya (1970, Music by Kalyanji-Anandji)

Tanuja plays the pretty Priya and she doesn’t seem quite sure what to make of the Beatles sound-a-like band that’s performing this terrific track named after her. Meanwhile, her boyfriend played by Sanjeev Kumar struggles to stay awake in the background. The old bore.


She is very pretty: Tanuja in 1970’s Priya

8. ‘Kehne Ki Nahin Baat’ from Pyar Kiye Jaa (1966, Music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal)

Shashi Kapoor and his pals have been screwed over by their crooked boss and so start up a protest outside his house. But rather than employ violence, the gang instead decide to dance up a storm to get the old guy’s attention! Shashi’s moves really are quite extraordinary.


Scary! Shashi Kapoor and friends protest in 1966’s Pyar Kiye Jaa

9. ‘Aaja Aaja’ from Teesri Manzil (1966, Music by R.D. Burman)

Shammi’s back on the scene and he’s having trouble persuading the quirky Asha Parekh to bust a move with him on the dancefloor. She soon relents though and, before you know it, they’re shaking both of their ample rumps for all their worth in this orgasmic rocker that literally translates as “Come! Come!”


Shammi and Asha reach a climax in 1966’s Teesri Manzil

10. ‘O Meri Maina’ from Pyar Kiye Jaa (1966, Music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal)

Finishing with a personal favourite of mine that features Mehmood alongside the gorgeous, delightful and charismatic Mumtaz, both of whom are entertaining a seated Shashi Kapoor, who’s keeping the needle from skipping on a record as the other two dance like a pair of looneys to the music. “Aye-yai-yo!”


I love Bollywood. Mumtaz and Mehmood in 1966’s Pyar Kiye Jaa

YouTube videos are available for all of the above clips by clicking on the pictures and were working at the time of posting, though some may well have been taken down in the meantime by company grumps who’d rather we didn’t watch them in this fashion - i.e. for free.

Posted by Stephen on August 20th, 2009

Sadma

SADMA (1983, d. Balu Mahendra)

SadmaHindi cinema’s finest era was most definitely not the Eighties. With the industry’s stars of the 70s ageing just as rapidly as the increasingly tired masala plots were, Bollywood looked to the south of India for new blood and inspiration, leading to the arrival of many of the top directors, singers and stars of Tamil cinema making the trip north to Bombay. While this did often result in South Indian cinema’s characteristically violent, crass and low budget styles tainting the already struggling Hindi film world, occasionally the best of Tamil movie-making did inject some life and innovation to Bollywood’s silver screens. One such fine example is this Hindi remake of the 1982 Tamil drama Moondram Pirai that sees much of the cast and crew from the original reprise their roles. The picture tells the story of Nehalata (Sridevi), a young woman who regresses to childhood after suffering a head injury in a car crash. Lost, she ends up trapped at a brothel before being rescued by Somu (Kamal Haasan), a lonely school teacher who falls in love with her.

Released to great critical acclaim but little box office success in 1983, Sadma (’The Trauma’) is an unusual mix of dark comedy, bleak drama and offbeat romance. It is certainly unlike many of mainstream Indian cinema’s output either of its time or of today with a very low-key pace and stripped-down narrative that is centralised almost entirely on its two leading stars, both of whom turn in outstandingly emotive and sympathetic performances.

Having only appeared in a handful of Hindi pictures in supporting roles, the Sridevi of 1983 was not yet the Bollywood megastar she would inevitably become in the late 80s and early 90s. Though a popular leading actress in the South (and having already starred in over 150 films), Hindi cinema was nonetheless mostly uncharted territory for the 20 year-old actress. Her stunning turn as child-woman Nehalata in Sadma was more than enough to leave her mark in the industry however, and stardom in Bombay immediately flourished. While admittedly exaggerated, her take on the character is truly heartfelt and convincingly brings forth both the giddy joy and confused anguish of the little girl trapped inside an adult’s body, thrown from one calamity to another. It is these same innocent, child-like traits that Sridevi would utilise to perfection in shaping her comedic screen persona in the years to come.

In playing the role of Somu, any other actor may have found himself feeling upstaged by the amazing Sridevi - not so if your name just happens to be Mr. Kamal Haasan though. The veteran Tamil actor/writer/director extraordinaire gives one of his most touching and subtlest performances as the withdrawn school teacher, every bit as adrift and damaged emotionally as Nehalata is physically. In her, he finds a soul-mate and a chance at happiness, although fate’s cruel hand has tragically different plans. This happened to be the norm at this stage in the career of Kamal Haasan, whose characters seemed to find more love from cinema audiences the more misery they were put through on screen. The 80s were indeed gloomy times for Bollywood.


Kidding around: Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Sadma

Sadma is widely available on DVD in the U.S. from Bollywood Entertainment - formerly DEI - which regrettably only offers average quality picture and sound. The transfer is marred by substantial print damage (several seconds are missing at key plot points), weak colours and DNR after effects. Audio is likewise displeasing with treble levels set far too high, leaving the soundtrack sounding screechy as though it were being played over a telephone. A better quality disc is out to buy on India’s Shemaroo label, however this release is marred by a huge subtitle goof-up whereby the top and bottom lines have been reversed. Balu Mahendra’s important and much admired film deserves better, not unlike a large majority of neglected evergreen Indian movies.

Posted by Stephen on January 1st, 2009

Om Shanti Om

OM SHANTI OM (2007, d. Farah Khan)

Om Shanti OmIf one were to select the ideal Bollywood film to show a newcomer to Hindi cinema, then 2007’s smash hit blockbuster Om Shanti Om would a prime example of one of the worst possible choices. Not because it is a lousy picture (though it is far from perfect), but because this comedy spoof of Bollywood itself is so chock-full of in-jokes, self-referential humour and genre parodies that any viewer unaware of Indian cinema’s colourful history will doubtless find themselves utterly flummoxed by it all. For those who’ll manage to grasp even half the jokes however, there is much fun to be had here courtesy of writer/director (and former ace choreographer) Farah Khan’s ode to all that is ludicrous in Bollywood. OSO tells the tale of Om Prakash Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan), a geeky film extra - or ‘junior artiste’ - working in 1970s Bollywood, struggling to make it big as a star and win the affections of his favourite leading lady - ‘heroine’ - Shanti Priya (the debuting Deepika Padukone). Tragedy strikes however, as they are both killed in a fire set by Shanti’s husband producer, the evil Mukesh Mehra (Arjun Rampal). But there is life after death, literally, for both Om and Shanti as they are both reincarnated and again grow up in the Indian film industry - this time though with Om as the top-billing superstar and Shanti as the adoring extra. As the lovers reunite, their killer Mukesh finally looks set to pay for his crimes thirty years prior.


The stars are out in Om Shanti Om:
(L-R) Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Lara Dutta, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan

With a plot suitably over-the-top enough to cope with the many equally absurd clichés that this postmodern satire aims to send up, Om Shanti Om works terrifically well as an excursion in cheerfully mocking the Indian film industry. Genuine belly laughs abound as stars both past and present find themselves spoofed in creative and hilarious fashion, often with the actors themselves (both in person and via impressive use of Forest Gump-esque CGI) taking part at poking fun. My personal favourite was Shah Rukh Khan’s dead-on impression of South Indian superstar Rajnikanth in a genius sequence aping the notoriously hokey Tamil movie business. Another scene to savour is the frighteningly accurate re-creation of a bitchy Filmfare awards presentation that sees the admirably game-for-a-laugh Abhishek Bachchan and Akshay Kumer both send up their careers and images so brilliantly, it would make even Garry Shandling proud. As this near-three hour gag-a-thon starts to wind down however, the increasing number of celebrity cameos do tend to outstay their welcome somewhat and by the time we reach the celeb-saturated title song sequence where nearly thirty performers appear one after the other, it does eventually become a case of: “Next!”

Pastiches and parodies aside, as an actual film - even a comedy such as this - Om Shanti Om does not work nearly as well as it should. With its one-dimensional characters and paper thin storyline that sadly becomes progressively more dull, the film winds up ever more reliant on the next batch if lampoons to hold both itself together and the audience’s interest. The lead actors’ performances are likewise below-par with Arjun Rampal positively tree-like in his wooden turn as the villainous Mukesh and newcomer Deepika Padukone offering little more than a pretty smile in terms of talent. And as for Shah Rukh Khan, well, even in intentional self-parody mode there is only so much one can stand of his characteristic über-hamming. Besides his actual performance being at times painful to watch, even his appearance this time around makes for an uncomfortable sight - particularly in the horrific ‘Dard-e-Disco’ song number that sees a hideous-looking Khan sporting a gaunt face and bulging physique that would look more at home in the ‘roided up world of professional wrestling than in a Bollywood flick. Despite the numerous imperfections though, Om Shanti Om still remains a highly enjoyable adventure overall full of good-natured jesting and guffaws aplenty. Just make sure you buck up on your book of Bollywood masala trivia before jumping in headfirst.


“Mind it!”: Shah Rukh apes Rajnikanth in Om Shanti Om

The available 2-disc DVD set from Eros Entertainment unfortunately does not offer the kind of superior quality the label has lately been offering consumers. Instead, problems arise in the form of lacking sharpness (despite allegedly being mastered from an HD source), an unfavourable amount of pixellating and less-than-stellar 5.1 audio. Still, it is a far better effort than the Eros of old would have provided and the extras on the second disc are certainly plentiful, including bloopers, deleted scenes and documentaries among other such goodies. Adequate English subtitles are provided for all content, but are marred by spelling and grammar errors on occasion.

Posted by Stephen on February 29th, 2008

Bollywood DVDs: 10 of the best

Anyone who has ever purchased a few Hindi DVDs (or read this blog) will be all too aware of the substandard quality they sadly offer compared with other international cinema. However, amongst all the dross are several genuinely well-authored releases and below is a list I’ve compiled of what I’d consider to be the ten most impressive. And while some of these films may not represent the best of Indian cinema, the discs themselves will be the ideal choices to make the most out of your HD setup.

Taal10. Taal (Rapid Eye Moves, R2, PAL)

This excessive slice of musical melodrama looks splendid on this release from German label REM. Though the image is quite soft, colours are amazingly vibrant (perhaps overly so at times) and the 5.1 audio is glorious, doing full justice to composer A.R. Rahman’s memorable song sequences which are stunningly picturised and more enjoyable than the film itself. No extras other than the theatrical trailer are presented and unfortunately for non-Hindi/German speakers, there is a lack of English subtitles also.

Guru9. Guru (Rapid Eye Movies, R2, PAL)

Another English subs-free, but good quality disc from REM is this fictitious biopic of rags-to-riches businessman Gurukant Desai from acclaimed director Mani Ratnam. Superb songs, terrific performances and a thrilling narrative sadly lead to a limp conclusion, but the journey there is just about worth it. The DVD’s image is rock-steady, dirt-free and with impressive colour rendition. On the audio front, the 5.1 track is excellent as well. Special features include a few promotional featurettes and trailers.

Meenaxi8. Meenaxi (Yash Raj Films, R0, NTSC)

Controversial artist M.F. Husain’s second foray into cinema results in an unquestionably sumptuous visual experience with a couple of fine performances from leads Tabu and Kunal Kapoor, but like his previous film (2000’s Gaja Gamini) the narrative is at times unintelligible and often just plain dull. Still, the sumptuous set design and dazzling cinematography make this DVD, offering a vibrant and detailed transfer, well worth a watch. A ‘Making Of’ feature and adequate English subtitles make up the extras.

Lagaan7. Lagaan (Columbia Tristar, R2, PAL)

A rare Hindi DVD authored by a top Hollywood label which boasts a transfer far more pleasing than Bollywood’s usual fare. Colours are natural and sharpness is impressive, though the print is marred by the odd tear and scratch. As for the film, even casual Indian film fans should be aware of its credentials - Lagaan tells the tale of a high-stakes cricket match between ten Indian villagers and a regiment from their British colonial rulers. Exhilarating and unpretentious, Indian cinema doesn’t get much better than this.

Black6. Black (Bodega, R2, PAL)

This French DVD is another Euro release lacking in English subs, but the video and audio cannot be faulted. Colours are splendid, the print is squeaky clean and the 5.1 audio sounds terrific. Black has polarised Hindi film fans - some adore it for its haunting score, powerful acting and outstanding art design while others are less impressed by its emotional manipulation and liberal borrowing from 1962’s The Miracle Worker. Regardless, Black remains one of this decade’s most important and must-see Indian films.

Devdas5. Devdas (Diaphana, R2, PAL)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film adaption of the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay is overwrought with hammy performances, suffocating opulence and sluggish dialogue, but is blessed by some of the most resplendent sets and stunning dance choreography you’re ever likely to see on film. This professionally-authored French DVD release (which lacks English subtitles) features a stellar 5.1 audio mix to give your surround set-up a helluva workout. Interviews, in English, with the film’s stars are among the extras.

Mission Kashmir4. Mission Kashmir (Columbia Tristar, R2, PAL)

Another superb job from Columbia Tristar - this DVD has a near-flawless transfer with magnificent colour rendition and a print free from damage and grain. Only the image’s sharpness could be doing with some improvement and sound-wise, the 5.1 audio is crystal-clear. A shame the actual movie is far less enjoyable. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s take on the Kashmiri conflict starts out engrossingly enough, but descends into standard masala action fare by the end.

Mangal Pandey3. Mangal Pandey (Madman Entertainment, R4, PAL)

Filmed simultaneously in English as The Rising: Ballad Of Mangal Pandey, this fictionalised historical epic attempts to achieve the same patriotic mood as Lagaan, but falls short due to poor scripting and an at times dull narrative. The performances are spirited though and this excellent DVD release from Australian distributor Madman has impeccable colour rendition, good detail and dynamic audio. A plethora of promotional material is on offer among the disc’s special features.

Parineeta2. Parineeta (Excel Entertainment, R0, NTSC)

One of the very few Bollywood DVDs to offer a DTS audio track, this 2-disc set exclusive to India has been given suitably lush treatment from Excel Entertainment. Colours are sensational, the image is wonderfully detailed and the print is free from any grain or damage. Extras are plentiful, with promotional material, documentaries and a director’s commentary on offer. The movie itself is an enjoyable drama of a romance threatened by class division set in 1962 Calcutta.

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham1. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Rapid Eye Movies, R2, PAL)

Director Karan Johar’s follow-up to the magnificent Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is a disappointing mixture of bloated self-indulgence and at times grating performances, but does have its moments and is undeniably popular with Bollywood fans and newcomers alike. This digitally remastered 3-disc DVD set from Germany may just be the best a Hindi film has ever looked on a home video format. Mastered in HD, sharpness and detail are highly impressive while the colour rendition is nothing short of exquisite. REM have also split the near-4 hour film over the set’s first two discs to maximise the video’s bitrate. Four crystal clear audio tracks are on offer: the original Hindi 5.1 track as well as three dubbed in German encoded in 5.1, 2.0 and DTS. A selection of promotional material and deleted scenes make up the third disc’s extras and include a recent interview with Karan Johar regarding Bollywood’s popularity surge in Germany. Sadly though, yet again there are no English subtitles to found on this otherwise perfect release.

Posted by Stephen on September 20th, 2007

I Want To Be Madhuri Dixit!

MAIN MADHURI DIXIT BANNA CHAHTI HOON! (2003, d. Chandan Arora)

Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon!Erm, no, not me. Well, if the gender change wouldn’t be such a stumbling block then perhaps. Aspiring to be Madhuri Dixit, Bollywood’s queen of the 90s, is actually her number one fan Chutki - the lead character in this charming comedy drama that is ironically better than most of Ms Dixit’s movies. Chutki (Antara Mali) is a fun-loving and high-spirited young village girl who amuses her friends and neighbours with her dead-on impressions of her favourite actress. Singing and dancing her days away, she dreams of becoming the kind of beloved screen heroine that her idol is. Her aspirations are halted though after her distinctly unamused mother announces plans to marry her off in order to get her head out of the clouds. Chutki is heartbroken, but help is at hand in the form of her best friend and secret admirer - the dim yet adorable Raja (Rajpal Yadav), who offers to marry her so that they may both run off to Bombay for Chutki to live out her dreams. However, after the young newly-weds arrive in India’s movie capital, Chutki discovers the path to Bollywood stardom is not all plain-sailing in the harsh realities of Bombay’s city life.


Stargazing: Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali in MMDBCH

This criminally overlooked and undervalued gem of a film employs a plot device all-too familiar to Western film-making, yet rather sparingly used in Indian pictures - the ‘fish out of water’ scenario. This makes Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! particularly accessible to newcomers of Bollywood, even those who are entirely unfamiliar with the work of Madhuri Dixit. Those who are though should doubtless get a kick out of seeing the various nods and tributes to her throughout, all of which are enacted to perfection by leading actress (and real-life Mads aficionado) Antara Mali. Mali was one of the more promising newcomers of Hindi cinema in recent years - A product of the Ram Gopal Varma production camp (which also shot Urmila Matondkar to fame), she gave memorable performances in 2002’s thriller Road, the 2003 horror Darna Mana Hai and most notably 2004’s moody drama Naach, opposite Abhishek Bachchan. Perhaps prematurely, she then took control of her own career in 2005 resulting in her disastrous directorial debut Mr Yaa Miss - a near-scene for scene copy of the 1991 Hollywood farce Switch. Mali hasn’t been seen since.


Antara as Chutki as Madhuri in MMDBCH (left) and the real Mads in 1990’s Sailaab (right)

Nonetheless, MMDBCH showcases Antara at her best and most joyful and special mention must also go to her co-star, the diminutive Rajpal Yadav. Almost always cast in the role of a slapstick comedy supporting character due to his appearance, Yadav gains plenty of opportunity to subtly flex his comic muscles here, but is for the most part given dramatic material which he handles equally as expertly. His character of Raja as the rather sad and forlorn fusspot torn between his unrequited love for Chutki and her dreams of stardom is well-written and wonderful to watch. Sadly though, the combined efforts of the talented actors and writer/director Chandan Arora did not bear fruit at either the Indian box office or from the critics, who awarded the film only mildly positive reviews. This never ceases to amaze me - to me, MMDBCH is a classic example of a feel-good, rags-to-riches adventure with no barriers of culture clashes or arty pretensions to alienate any viewers. So who knows why it didn’t click with the public? Perhaps it was the lack of star power, the occasionally dark narrative, the stinging satiric digs at some of Bollywood’s foibles or even some perceived plot hangover from 1995’s similarly-themed Rangeela. But whatever the reason, I would still certainly give it a high recommendation - Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! is one fun and touching little jaunt.


Aping Madhuri again in MMDBCH (left) and the genuine article in 1996’s Rajkumar (right)

The available DVD of MMDBCH from Venus Entertainment offers very well-translated English subtitles, superb 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, but below-average (though watchable) anamorphic video quality.

Posted by Stephen on June 5th, 2007

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

KABHI ALVIDA NAA KEHNA (2006, d. Karan Johar)

Kabhi Alvida Naa KehnaMush master Karan Johar’s latest three hour-plus opulent extravaganza is a rather embarrassing attempt at a serious subject matter - in this case, infidelity. A topic rarely covered in mainstream Hindi cinema, but nonetheless treated with far more sensitivity and maturity in past films (such as 1981’s Silsila - ‘The Affair’) than Johar has seen fit to unleash upon the public here. Johar’s previous movies have been accused of being too ‘candyfloss’ and featuring insufferably nice and all-too-perfect characters. This moodier drama is presumably his retort, but Johar seems to equate imperfection with downright nastiness rather than simple shades of grey. You’d be hard pressed to find a single sympathetic character in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (’Never Say Farewell’), what with everyone wallowing in their own self-pity as their respective relationships crumble inside their swanky New York apartments that even the cast of Friends would struggle to afford.

The darker narrative is equally as difficult to take seriously thanks to the frequent undercutting of some truly cringe-worthy comedy sequences – mostly involving Amitabh Bachchan as ‘Sexy Sam’, a shag-mad pensioner whose favourite pastime is bedding prostitutes (all non-Asian, of course). The rest of the cast have a hard time escaping this one with any dignity also – in particular Shah Rukh Khan, who reaches an all-time hamming high, and Preity Zinta, who is as vapid as ever. Only Rani Mukerji manages to salvage some empathy with a typically restrained and heartfelt performance. Karan Johar’s earlier films may have been frivolous fluff all right, but they were at least entertaining and full of heart. KANK is just painful, self-indulgent and pretentious claptrap. Stick to the candyfloss next time, Karan – for all our sakes.


“Wish I wasn’t here”: Rani cringes alongside the Big and Little B in KANK

For fans of KANK (and there’s plenty despite my take on it), the DVD on offer from distributor Yash Raj Films provides excellent audio, a fair selection of extras and adequate subtitles. Unfortunately though, the video has been subjected to the dreaded Blue Tint Effect that’s been marring Indian DVD releases over the past couple of years (see ‘Bollywood’s Got The Blues’ in DVD Info). Still, for once it’s appropriate - it’s a colour that reflected my mood upon viewing the film.

Posted by Stephen on May 22nd, 2007

Rani Mukerji: Bollywood’s Miss Dependable

Rani MukerjiAsk your average Hindi film fan to name a few of today’s hottest Bollywood actresses (or ‘heroines’ as they as popularly referred as) and they’ll likely drop names such as Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor and Preity Zinta. All are undoubtedly blessed with good looks and have given some fine performances in recent years, but there is one other actress out there who is equally as beautiful and even more talented - having delivered more hits at the box office during her career than any of her female peers. And yet despite a slew of awards, acclaimed performances and blockbusters to her credit, somehow her name always seems to get lost in the shuffle. It’s the industry’s finest regularly-working actress today; Rani Mukerji.

Daughter of Bengali film director Ram Mukherjee and playback singer Krishna, Rani Mukerji was born in West Bengal’s capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Initially hesitant at becoming a movie actress, she did so at the encouragement - or more accurately, insistence - of her mother, who would go on to decide a large number of Rani’s film choices herself… with at times disastrous results. Her debut came in the form of 1996’s hideous ‘romantic’ drama Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat in which her character of Mala marries her rapist by order of court. This moronic piece of drivel deservedly sunk without a trace at the box office. Two years and one college degree later, Rani re-entered Bollywood for another try in 1998 with far more success this time around thanks to her turn in the action drama Ghulam alongside superstar actor Aamir Khan. Though her supporting role of the generic romantic interest offered her little screen time and the film itself was largely unremarkable, her performance was nonetheless a memorable one due to her and Aamir’s comedy song number ‘Ati Kya Khandala’ (‘Let’s Go To Khandala’) scoring with the public and setting India’s music charts on fire.

For the moment she was at least now famous if not respected as an actress, but that too would soon change after debutant director Karan Johar needed someone to fill the role of the glamorous Tina in 1998’s biggest hit of the year, the glorious rom-com Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Johar had already been turned down by just about every major actress in Bollywood by the time the role was eventually offered to Rani, whom Johar was reluctant to hire even then because of her dark skin, round face, husky voice and plump figure - all no-no’s in Hindi cinema’s shallow world of casting. While Rani lit up the screen in KKHH with a charming and assured performance that betrayed her mere two years in the biz and earned her a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Filmfare trophy, her newly-found mega-stardom did not come without its, erm, modifications. Her so-called ‘ugly duckling’ appearance was deemed such a problem by filmmakers that she would be continually caked in layers of white make-up before being washed out by blinding stage lights for good measure. Her voice too was considered unacceptable for a time, being as it was dubbed for the whole duration of Ghulam and was about to be again for KKHH before she managed to persuade Karan Johar to allow at least her voice to be natural.


Seen but not heard: A dubbed Rani finds fame in 1998’s Ghulam

Still, having her looks tampered with and settling for being second, third or fourth choice for a part was something Rani would have to get used to in future. In the meantime, her mother continued to hand-pick a poor selection of garden variety masala movies for her to star in, resulting in a multiple-year box office dry spell as well as media allegations of an affair with frequent co-star Govinda (which was strenuously denied by both sides). The damage to her image and career proved only temporary however; she impressed critics with her deglamorised role of the ill-fated Aparna in South Indian actor/filmmaker Kamal Haasan’s mesmerising and disturbing take on Partition - 2000’s Hey Ram - before later securing her first hit in years alongside Vivek Oberoi with 2002’s Saathiya, a remake of the Tamil romantic drama Alai Payuthey. From there, Rani never looked back and over the course of the next few years eventually rose to the top of the industry - churning out hit after hit, including 2004’s When Harry Met Sally tribute Hum Tum and the epic romance Veer-Zaara, in which she earned more plaudits from film journalists with her portrayal of a Pakistani lawyer.

Frustratingly though, despite her proven audience pulling-power and having never delivered anything less than accomplished performances, Rani continued to find herself low down on the wish-list of Bollywood producers and directors obsessed with hiring slim, fair-skinned heroines. This even remained the case in 2005 when filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali sought to cast the part of Michelle McNally - a blind, deaf and dumb character - in the magical and riveting drama Black. Bhansali had written the role for Kareena Kapoor, but after co-star Amitabh Bachchan refused to work with her (huffing at her sister recently dumping his darling son), Rani yet again found herself stepping into shoes not meant for her yet making them her own undeterred. Her breathtaking performance as Michelle set new standards for both herself and others in Hindi cinema, and once again the awards came rolling in faster and in larger quantities than ever before.


The last laugh: Rani acts up a storm in 2005’s Black

Nowadays, Rani remains the darling of both Bollywood fans and critics, and the cross to bear of gossip columnists and filmmakers. She’s a simple girl, in every sense. Conservative, unassuming and always politically correct, she denies the tabloids the controversy other stars provide in abundance and her unconventional looks still find themselves hidden under a camouflage of white light and make-up by directors. Still, they really should thank their lucky stars. She may not be their ideal vision of what a Bollywood heroine is meant to be, but when there’s ever a top role going spare in Hindi cinema, Rani Mukerji will always end up as their Miss Dependable.

Posted by Stephen on May 15th, 2007

Awara (’The Vagabond’)

AWARA (1951, d. Raj Kapoor)

AwaraThough the first Indian sound motion picture was released in 1931, it was not until the fifties that Hindi cinema truly hit its stride as it gradually developed the distinctive characteristics that make up what we now call Bollywood. One person largely responsible for creating this magic formula was actor/director/producer Raj Kapoor, dubbed the ultimate ’showman’ of Indian cinema. Kapoor belonged to one of the greatest family dynasties in Bollywood, with members of five generations ranging from his grandfather to granddaughters all having acted in the film industry. None were more respected or loved than Raj himself however; the influence of his work (particularly as a director) continues to be felt in Hindi movies even to this day.

This atmospheric and brooding social commentary was Raj Kapoor’s third as director and producer which was shot at his own production studio, R.K. Films. Though Kapoor would later enter a career-best acting performance in 1955’s Shree 420, I would consider this film his finest achievement as a filmmaker. Remarkable that he was aged just 27 at the time. Kapoor plays the part of Raju, a cheerful young Bombay slum-dweller who has taken to petty crime to feed himself and his ailing mother, Leela. Both were thrown out on to the streets by Leela’s husband, the misguided district judge Raghunath (performed by Raj Kapoor’s real-life father, Prithviraj), who wrongly believed his son to not be his own but that of a sworn enemy, the conniving bandit Jagga. While on a thieving caper, Raju meets up after many years with his childhood friend, the beautiful and wealthy budding lawyer Rita (Nargis). The two fall in love, but little do they both know that Rita’s guardian is none other than Raju’s estranged father himself. A violent encounter follows the discovery, which leads to a date in court for Raju and a difficult first case for Rita.

Awara is a true landmark in Hindi cinema. Though it is preceded by other important films such as 1949’s Andaz and Barsaat, it can still nonetheless be considered an unofficial starting point for Bollywood as we know it. Almost all the hallmarks are on display; from the romance hampered by a rich/poor divide, to the fantasy dream song sequence (making its debut here), to the testosterone-appeasing fist fights, to the infamous ‘item’ number picturised on a fair-skinned female performer barely related to the story. But while subsequent filmmakers - including today’s - might make little attempt at connecting these components cohesively, Raj Kapoor showed ‘em how it was done. Awara combines its various plotpoints admirably (some smoother editing is called for in parts), ensuring all play an important part in its subdued, critical tale of caste dogma and the inevitable grim outcomes. And while undoubtedly Indian in spirit, the film abounds with clear Western influences too. Kapoor’s vagabond characterisation bears obvious comparison to Chaplin’s tramp persona, while the moody and offbeat set staging evokes the work of Orson Welles.

Despite the often dark narrative, the movie is perhaps best loved and remembered for the radiant chemistry of the two leads, Nargis and Raj Kapoor himself. The pair’s love affairs (both on and off screen) are the stuff of Bollywood legend. Though Kapoor was a married man, it was no secret that he and Nargis were lovers - a blind eye was turned by all thanks to the magic both delivered in the numerous films they appeared opposite each other in. Such was the fondness Kapoor had for his leading lady, he would always ensure she received top billing above himself - a rare practice still. Awara sees Nargis at her most resplendent; sporting an infectious, gap-toothed grin and 1940s Hollywood good looks, her magnetic screen presence is undeniable. In her solo song number ‘Jab Se Balam Ghar Aaye’ (’Since My Beloved Came Home’), her smouldering camera looks are irresistibly seductive while her feisty, hyperactive antics during a subsequent duet with Kapoor exude both innocence and a burning sexual desire. This scene and the ensuing love-making (only hinted at, obviously) perfectly highlight the progressive nature of this magnum opus from Raj Kapoor that has aged far better than even the more celebrated Sholay. Awara has never failed to make for grand viewing, no matter what the time period.

Nargis and Raj Kapoor
Screen legends: Nargis and Raj Kapoor

Widely available on DVD from distributer Yash Raj Films, the preferred option to own is nonetheless the harder-to-obtain but vastly superior release from India’s Shemaroo label which boasts surprisingly excellent video and audio quality for a film of this age. Picture clarity is very good and dirt, grain and print damage are kept at a minimum. Some excessive DNR spoils moving shots somewhat though, while a PAL-to-NTSC conversion also leaves us with some ghosting problems. Still, all in all, an undoubtedly pleasing treatment of an evergreen classic Indian musical.

Posted by Stephen on March 4th, 2007
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