Happy New Year

Happy New Year (Farah Khan, 2014)


One of the things I dearly love about masala movies are the insanely convoluted plotlines – melodramatic twist upon ridiculous revelation upon unexpected u-turn. But there are the familiar conventions too – falsely imprisoned parents, abandoned children seeking vengeance, double roles!, criminal masterminds with secret or elaborate lairs, jewel heists, a go-go dancer with a heart of gold who falls in love with the hero…

So imagine my excitement at seeing the trailer for Happy New Year, Farah Khan’s most recent extravaganza. Not only did it appear to contain all the masala elements (and more!) that I detailed above, it boasted an all star cast that was particularly appealing: Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Boman Irani, Sonu Sood and Abhishek Bachchan.

And CLINCHING the deal: based on the trailer – the film, though ostensibly a kind of desi Ocean’s Eleven type heist flick – was set AT A DANCE COMPETITION. Dance competition movies just happen to be basically one of my FAVOURITE THINGS EVER.

So based on the trailer, what I thought I was getting with Happy New Year was a film about some aspiring diamond thieves who definitely were not dancers, who, for whatever convoluted and ridiculous Bollywood reason, had to enter and win a dance contest to pull off their heist. Granted: the trailer I watched didn’t have subtitles and I only watched it once, so I might have made up this entire film in my head.

But I’d totally watch that movie! It sounds hilarious! Plus, as much as I love Abhishek (which is a lot, really really a lot), you and I both know dancing is not his strongest suit, so a film where he’s supposed to be an enthusiastic amateur (cough Jhoom Bharabar Jhoom) is basically CRACK to me.

FIRST MISTAKE: believing the trailer.

SECOND MISTAKE: watching the movie.

I hate to say this – because Om Shanti Om is, as I have documented so many times, the first Bollywood film I ever saw, and remains one of my very favourites to this day – but Happy New Year is an abomination. It’s one of the worst films I have ever seen and actually managed to watch all the way through. And it’s terrible, because it’s bad in that mediocre, just barely tolerable way, rather than being so egregious that one can turn it off in outrage, or being so hilariously bad it’s actually enjoyable.

Everything about it just feels off. The story is tired and old-fashioned without any kind of “new masala twist” to keep it interesting. It’s a diamond heist revenge tale. I can’t even remember the character’s names, because they were so….bleh. Jackie Shroff plays a rich guy who (inexplicably) framed Shah Rukh’s father (Anupam Kher) for robbery years earlier and got him thrown in jail, where he committed suicide when his appeal was declined. Shah Rukh has been planning his revenge all this time, and his planned revenge is to do to Jackie Shroff what Jackie Shroff did to Anupam Kher: e.g. frame him for robbery. So he gathers up a bunch of accomplices that Jackie Shroff has also wronged somehow – a drunk (Abhishek Bachchan) who can vomit on command; a buff explosives expert (Sonu Sood) who is “comically” deaf in one ear; and his father’s best friend (Boman Irani) who is an expert safecracker, but who suffers from some kind of stress induced epilepsy. Oh yeah, and another guy, like a 12 year old computer hacker. The plan is to go to Dubai, carry out this intricate heist on the safe where Jackie Shroff keeps his diamonds, framing him for the robbery. Except that there’s a dance competition on at the same time, so OBVIOUSLY they have to enter to attain access.


Exhibit A: instead of devoting time and resources to becoming India’s entry for the World Dance championship, why don’t they just DISGUISE THEMSELVES so that Jackie Shroff won’t instantly recognise them? Since all it took for them to win the dance contest was for their hacking expert to hack the voting (and since he can apparently hack into EVERYTHING) why didn’t they just hack the security system in the building? Why the bullshit plot about the dance competition?

Because the dance competition is basically incidental to the plot and an excuse to shoehorn Deepika Padukone into the story as the dance teacher/love interest/misogynist joke punching bag, and throw a couple more songs in.

The thing is: everyone involved in this film is capable of far better. Everyone in this film DESERVES far better. Deepika Padukone, especially, deserves better than to be the inconsistent, idiotic love interest, who not once, not twice, but at least THREE TIMES walks in on Shah Rukh talking immensely disrespectful shit about her appearance, and how vulgar, and naive she is; but she just repeatedly gets upset, and falls in love with him anyway.

I would literally pay to watch Boman Irani read from a phone book, because I think he is wonderful. The only genuine joy I got from this film was a sight gag when hordes of women turn their noses up at a topless, flexing, supremely muscular Sonu Sood, because they are really leering at the far more adorable Boman Irani standing behind him. So it is genuinely painful that this film has such a gloriously talented actor reduced to being “the mama’s boy with a lisp and epilepsy” for laughs.

Abhishek Bachchan deserves better than a double role that casts him as a shambolic drunk, and an evil, mincing rich boy.

Shah Rukh deserves better than a role that has him pointlessly fall back on his prior Farah Khan outings (yes, we remember Main Hoon Na; yes, we remember Om Shanti Om; you don’t need to reference them ENDLESSLY) and rely on creepy, gimmicky abs.

Everyone deserves better than the cynically patriotic song proclaiming “hum hai indiawaale” shoehorned into the dance contest – it couldn’t be clearer that the filmmakers want and expected this to become an anthem. But it’s not…justified.

Farah Khan phoned it in on this one. It’s neither Happy, or New.


Kurbaan (Rensil D’Silva, 2009)
The story of Kurbaan follows Avantika (Kareena Kapoor) and Ehsaan (Saif Ali Khan) – college professors who meet in Delhi, fall in love, marry and move together to New York. They move to an all Indian community, populated largely with Muslims, and are soon invited to socialise with their new neighbours Salma and Hakil one evening.
The next morning, Salma visits Avantika in secret to beg for her help. She confides that her life is in grave danger, and that Avantika needs to contact a journalist named Rehana (Dia Mirza) who can help.
And then Salma goes missing.
Avantika and Ehsaan are soon caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and nobody can be trusted.
It sounds okay, right?
Here’s a picture I took of my face as I was watching the last ten minutes of Kurbaan. Actually, that could be my face for MOST of the film, when my eyes weren’t rolling right back in my head in horror/exasperation/sheer unrelenting tedium.
They say “a picture is worth a thousand words” but if you don’t get the gist, let me spell it out for you.
This film is appalling. It’s APPALLING.
Initially – and I mean, at the VERY beginning – Avantika is depicted as successful, smart, independent, confident, and headstrong – all desirable traits in a feminist heroine. Granted, I’m reading a LOT into very little – how she interacts with Ehsaan during their “meet-cute” over the taxi; how she confidently turns him down when he pursues her because she doesn’t need to accept a date with every cute guy that asks her out.
Five minutes or so into the film, and I’m all like “Yes! A strong female character! Of COURSE they got Bebo to play her, who else could do it?” But Avantika’s strength of character completely and inexplicably vanishes by the middle of the film – she finds out her beloved husband is a terrorist who lied to her, about EVERYTHING, and…she just sort of mopes about it. Any of the fight or feistiness that was apparent in her at the start, apparently get subdued in favour of being a dutiful prisoner-wife (and by the film’s end, when Ehsaan has bizarrely and inexplicably decided to abandon the jihad because…who knows? I guess he had reasons, Avantika is apparently as much in inexplicable love with him as ever. No fear, no hatred, not even bewilderment at his flip-flop turnaround from Islamic fundamentalist to saviour of the free world).
The graphic rapey-ness of 80s Bollywood is infamous, but the industry has moved on, right? India is progressing, attitudes are changing, right? Right? (Sadly, I know that the answer to this is not what I want it to be).
This film was made in 2009. TWO THOUSAND AND NINE. And this is how Ehsaan romantically pursues Avantika:

He really won’t give up. He says so explicitly.

Not icky enough?

But here’s the kicker:

 Cut to:

What scenarios like this teach the audience:
No doesn’t mean no, it means keep going until she gives in. 
Special bonus ick: Avantika has just told Ehsaan she doesn’t think they should be involved because they work together. So he tries to kiss her. Against her will.

As a media studies major, I rail against the idea that any media is ever explicitly didactic. NO, people don’t go out and rob trains because they saw it on a movie. NO, listening to death metal doesn’t make you kill puppies. But I do believe the popular media of a culture does amplify and reflect and help create societal attitudes, and so I think that being raised absorbing scenes like this one, if this is what is normal (and based on the Indian films I have seen, where stalking = romance; where rape = a tool to dominate or punish an unruly – see: assertive – woman; OR a trope to bring in the hero to save the woman from the dastardly villain) is really dangerous. It’s more appalling for how ‘normal’ it is, in that in many of the other reviews I read, it has gone completely unnoticed and uncommented on.
The one thing that NOBODY failed to notice when Kurbaan came out was the confusing message it pushes about Islam and terrorism.
Ehsaan teaches a course on Islam’s impact on the West, which he describes as being less about lecture and more about discussion. Ehsaan starts off the discussion by pointing out that “the word jihad is mentioned in the Koran about 41 times. The words mercy, peace and compassion are mentioned about 355 times. ….Islam is a religion that preaches peace and tolerance”.
The resulting discussion in the classroom goes along these lines:
  • Well if Islam is peaceful, how come some of the world’s most turbulent regions are plagued with Islamic terrorism?
  • Ehsaan’s answer – it depends on how you define terrorism. Isn’t what the US is doing in those regions terrorism too?
  • Student: no, those are acts of war to overthrow despotic regimes.
Riyaaz (Vivek Oberoi) an American-raised Muslim, joins in, basically pointing out that the news media is one-sided – the students know what the West wants them to know, not the POV of the other side. Looked at from an Afghani (for example) civilian’s perspective – the US are the terrorists, bombing cities, killing civilians, in the name of searching for weapons of mass destruction that may or may not exist.
And the discussion – terribly (e.g. NOT AT ALL) moderated by Ehsaan, descends into:
That’s about as nuanced as the discussion ever gets, which is incredibly frustrating.The thing is, at this point in the film, WE KNOW EHSAAN IS A TERRORIST. We know that he has been implicated in a number of bombings and murders. We know that everything he says about tolerance and peace, mercy and compassion, he APPARENTLY DOESN’T BELIEVE, or he defines in very different terms.
In case there is any doubt about the Muslim case, it’s put forward very explicitly at several points in the film, by several of the Muslim characters, pretty much all of whom are fundamentalist terrorists, including Nasreen Aapa (Kirron Kher): “for the sake of a few terrorists, they [the US] destroyed a whole country. We are killing just a few of them [Americans] so that they understand what it means to lose a loved one”.
There have been several thoughtful, touching, and provocative Indian films that I have seen that address issues of race, of prejudice, and of fundamentalism with depth, intelligence and even sometimes humour. One of the things I have long considered a strength of Indian cinema is that it can provide an alternative perspective to some of the issues – such as “terrorism” – that pop up in Western cinema. The prevailing redneck Western stereotype is already that Muslim = terrorist, so it is beyond disappointing, beyond bewildering to see an Indian-made film that perpetuates and STRENGTHENS this stereotype further. Kurbaan is a waste of time, a film I genuinely cannot fathom the point of. What a way to start the year.

Let’s Fall In Love. Sort of. And then fall out again.

Chalo Ishq Ladaaye (Aziz Sajaawal, 2002)

Well. This is tricky.

The first time I watched Chalo Ishq Ladaaye (Come, Let’s Fall In Love) I was watching it for the usual first-watch superficial, entertainment reasons. Namely Chi Chi, Chi Chi dancing, and the comedy plot that would let me turn off my brain for a while. I remember LOVING IT. It works on the three fronts required: there is plenty of Chi Chi – and the early years of the new millennium were good for him in terms of his hair and weight – in fact, Govinda looks pretty damn good in this film; his dancing is AWESOME (and I’m sure we will come back to this); Himesh Reshamiya’s soundtrack for the film is insanely catchy; and the plot of the film, despite being loosely borrowed from both Strangers on a Train and Throw Mama From the Train, and in fact, despite the absence of an actual train from the film, is sufficiently entertaining. Dance Chi Chi and Action Chi Chi: WIN WIN!

What I loved the most about CIL is that it is one of the most filmi films I have ever seen. Filmi references ABOUND – so much so, I think I would struggle to identify even half of them. You know the quickest way to my heart is to make a film jam packed with intertextual references and film quotes, and CILcertainly succeeds here, based as it is on an ardent fan’s increasingly dysfunctional real-life relationship with the filmstar object of his affection.

But it’s also this aspect – the overwhelming filminess of the CIL‘world’ that, on watching again, made me kind of sad. Because it reveals the darker, sadder, more cynical undercurrents running through CIL, beneath the superficial comedy hijinks and ‘happy ever after’ ending.

I’m all for films with substance, but this one, oh….I didn’t expect it to make me so sad.

It’s probably best to start with what CIL is ACTUALLY about on the surface level – that is, what it is I saw the first time I saw – and loved – this film. Essentially, it’s a mixture of black comedy and drama, with a hefty dose of self-referential intertextuality thrown in for good measure. WITH CHI CHI DANCING! Recipe for good times!

Pappu (Govinda) is the lead singer in a Hindi film song covers band (at least I hope that’s what it is, because that totally fits the whole filmi theme too too well). He lives with his Dadi (grandmother) (the always fabulous Zoya Sehgal) who basically lives to terrorise him – keeping him on a pitiful allowance, bossing him round mercilessly, taking gleeful joy in whacking him round the head – all of which Pappu bears with hilariously barely repressed rage. Oh Govinda. How much do I love you? SO FREAKING MUCH.

Anyway. Pappu is also a huge, mega, super fan of a glamourous Bollywood film star named Sapna, writing her weekly anonymous fan mail which he signs “Fan #1” (just one of many cute filmi references to Govinda’s own filmography). Sapna, despite her fame and fortune, has her own worries – namely, her fiancé, for whom she is prepared to sacrifice her whole career, turns out to be one hell of a cheating badmaash. She’s touched by Fan #1’s loyal devotion to her, but unable to reach out or reply to any of his mail; he never supplies a return address.

Cue cosmically fated meeting between adorably starstruck Fan #1 and a drunken, depressed Sapna, where they each agree to take care of the other’s problem. Through…dun dun dun….MURDER.

And then cue hilarious black comedy when hungover Sapna can’t actually remember the devilish bargain and is, err…kinda stalked by Pappu when she fails to take care of her end of the bargain – that is, to kill his Dadi for him. After all, he killed her dastardly fiancé. Because he’s her Fan #1!

And then cue the pretty predictable part where, because circumstances force the two to spend time together, they FALL IN LOVE against the odds.

Real life vs reel life: Rani and Chi Chi

One of the indubitable highlights of the film is seeing Rani and Chi Chi perform together. Most Govinda fans cite Chi Chi and Neelam or Chi Chi and Karisma as their favourite jodi, but seriously? Even though they only made three films (Hadh Kar Di Apne, Pyar Deewana Hota Hai and Chalo Ishq Ladaaye) together, before parting ways professionally forever, Rani and Chi Chi are undoubtedly my favourite onscreen pairing.

Just watch this:

What you just saw is pretty much the definition of “sizzling onscreen chemistry” and is also unfortunately a good example of How Rumours Get Started 101.

(If you are not an obsessive Govinda fan – basically: there is/was a persistent rumour, that both parties have always denied, that there was once an affair between Govinda and Rani that has since gone kaput, hence the end to their onscreen partnership).

Whatever the reason – Chalo Ishq Ladaaye marks the end of the Chi Chi/Rani three film run. Which is super sad and kind of intriguing given the two were both near the peak of their popularity (though if you really want to see their chemistry zing, watch Hadh Kar Di Apne, for real).

Anyway, there is a point to all of this.

I suspect this film was made, and released, at the time when the rumours about the Rani/Chi Chi relationship were beginning to reach a crescendo in the media – there are certainly enough seemingly meta- references within the film (oh my beloved references) that suggest a kind of message is being sent to the public. It’s a bit reminiscient of (my unpopular choice for favourite Govinda film) Ssukh, even.

Take for example, the scene where Sapna is trying to teach Pappu how to ‘act’ being in love. He’s hopeless, and she shoots down all of his attempts, and he blames it on the dialogues she has given him to say: he has to call her by a fake name.

When he can call her Sapna, he nails it, and she, and we, think that he is being sincere, and that he is ACTUALLY in love with her.

Until he breaks out of ‘character’, brilliantly, and asks “How was my acting?” – reminding us that no matter how good the chemistry looks onscreen – it’s all just pretend.

Totally filmi: dreaming of an ordinary life

Let’s talk about Sapna, because underneath it all, I think it’s Sapna’s story that makes me the saddest in this hilarious black comedy, for what it reveals about fame and particularly about what it is to be a woman in the industry. While Pappu is not exactly living the high life, the only real hurdle he has to escape is his controlling grandmother. He has friends, he has what he needs to live on and he seems to do okay with the ladies, despite his obsession with an unobtainable celebrity. Meanwhile, Sapna appears to have it all: fame, fortune, and love; only we soon discover her love life is based on crushing deceit, she appears to be incredibly lonely, with only her assistant Kokibhai for company, and the pressure of fame means every personal problem or bad day she has will get splashed across the media, and no amount of money can fix what is broken in her life. 

Celebrity – so very often depicted in the media as the pinnacle, the glamourous lifestyle we should aspire to (and worship) – is really portrayed in Chalo Ishq Ladaayeas something to escape from; and Sapna’s most obvious escape route is the one taken or gently forced upon generations of women in the industry: marriage as an exit from films. The quite weird downerish ending SPOILER ALERT has Sapna having to say goodbye to Pappu at her film premiere – he is the ordinary guy who doesn’t fit in with her celebrity life. She has to choose: film, or love.

And she chooses.

It just sucks, and leaves a sour note, that she can’t have BOTH.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

Ek Tha Tiger (Kabir Khan, 2012)
From a cursory glance at the other reviews floating round the internet (as usual, I am extremely late to the game seeing the dvd) it appears that Ek Tha Tiger has been widely met with a yawn and a resounding “meh”, lacking as it does much of the larger than life shirt-ripping and physics-defying action of previous Sallu superhits such as Wanted and Dabanng.
I thoroughly enjoyed both of those films, but I enjoyed them because they were new to me and felt fresh: now, with a lot more people (myself included) waking up to the South Indian films that are inspiration – when they’re not sources for direct remakes – for many of the action films coming out of Bollywood these days, I don’t want to see Sallu repeat the same Dabangg schtick over and over.
And of course, I was waiting the entire film for the expected “Sallu’s shirt comes off” scene – which again, in recent films, seems to have tried to outdo itself in audacity each time. I have to confess I actually cheered when the expected scene arrived with no gimmicky bells or whistles this time: no over the top Hulk-like tearing, the shirt doesn’t burn itself off his body – it’s blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s there, satisfyingly ticking the “shirt comes off” box in the curious checklist of tropes that make up a Salman Khan film.
I think that’s the secret: Ek Tha Tiger is essentially a genre film (in this case – action/romance/Salman Khan – yes, I am including “Salman Khan” as a genre because if you have seen enough Bollywood films, you will know that a Salman Khan film is going to be vastly different to a…Shahrukh Khan film, for example. The stars act as shorthand in themselves, a little bit), and it’s a genre film that strives to be good at what it is, without reinventing itself or being too clever or tricksy with the rules. So the pleasure lies in anticipating and recognising all the elements playing out on screen: the mildly ridiculous action set-pieces (Sallu has to stop a speeding train, single-handed in the middle of Dublin? Makes perfect sense in the film);
the myriad of shakily justified exotic locations (Istanbul, Ireland and Cuba are all kind of wedged into the script); 
obviously, the aforementioned “Sallu loses his shirt” scene (always ridiculously satisfying); for the classic Bollywood romantics, an interrupted kiss (check; heartbreaking? Check!);
conflict between nations (and thus divided loyalties, love, duty, patriotism, betrayal, all those great themes) reduced to a personal level:

…and so on, and so forth.
There’s not a great deal that is new in ETT, but it’s all done well. The set-up: Salman Khan plays the eponymous Tiger, RAW agent for India and lifelong bachelor – because how can he ever marry or fall in love, when his whole identity is a lie, and his life is just a series of secret missions? 
You see where this is going, right?
Tiger, naturally, falls in love while on a mission to gather intelligence about a Professor who might be sending sensitive information to RAW’s enemies – Pakistan’s ISI agency. Zoya (Katrina Kaif) is a dance student who is the Professor’s part-time housekeeper, and pretty soon Tiger finds himself completely smitten. THAT’S A BAD THING FOR SECRET AGENTS.
And answering this question is what the rest of the film is about: but not before it takes a few twists and turns into action territory.
I’ll tell you something else: I’ve never been especially secretive about my lack of enthusiasm for Katrina Kaif. But I really liked her in this film. Apart from the fact that to my eyes, she and Sallu DO have genuine chemistry together, it really does make a difference that her character is more than just…a girlfriend/sex object. 
 Um. This is supposed to illustrate my point. 

It’s sad to have to say so, but it’s so refreshing to see a female character wholly independent of the hero, who can act on her own without having to cling to his arm or run behind him; and there are several moments in this film where it’s quite apparent that Kat’s character, Zoya, despite being in love with Tiger, can and will go it alone. I like Kat, I think, when she has something to DO, rather than when she is reduced to Item Girl. 
She IS pretty in this film though, I was astonished to find myself actively thinking. 
Also: Ranvir Shorey: can he be in everything please? 
Super hilarious. Also: is it true about him and Konkona? Because that makes me super sad.

Dil for Dilli

Delhi-6 (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2009)
The story of an NRI returning, willingly or unwillingly, to India, only to ultimately find him- (or her-) self has been done countless times in Hindi cinema. It’s a kind of patriotic film carrying the message that no matter where you were born, if you have Indian blood, “there’s no place like home…” or, if you prefer, “phir bhi dil hai hindustani”.
(I’m pretty sure this trope isn’t exclusive to Indian cinema either. Think about Hollywood films where, for example, a New York businesswoman returns to her rootsy Southern hometown to learn a life lesson/find herself – it maybe is less patriotic but it’s a similar theme).
Anyway. I had seen Delhi-6 years ago when it first released and managed to forget just about everything about it. Second time round and I am stunned as to how anyone could fault this charming, beautiful, well-made film; populated as it is with interesting, well drawn characters who are played by some of the best actors in the industry.
Such as Rishi Kapoor! He is WONDERFUL as Ali Baig.
The first half of Delhi-6 unfurls deliciously languidly, as American-born and raised Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) volunteers to accompany his sick grandmother (a still stunning Waheeda Rehman) back to Delhi, because if she is dying, that is where she chooses to die. We experience Delhi through Roshan’s eyes – it’s not quite as magical as India is to Shahrukh Khan in Swades, where he hears music and bursts into joyful song on arrival – but for anyone who has travelled to a country with foreign customs and culture, his mixture of awe and trepidation will be familiar. Roshan revels at first in the crowded alleyways and chaotic bustle of Chandni Chowk, taking photo after photo on his cellphone, and meeting the extended family of his grandmother who all instantly embrace him as their own. He attends a Ram Leela with the rest of the community (which will serve as a narrative device in itself throughout the film, as well as just being gorgeous and an epic tale of good versus evil): 

That’s Ram aiming an arrow at Ravan, by the way.
But it’s not all just a happy holiday. Slowly, amid the charm and colour and bustle that is so alluring to Roshan, the frustrations and problems of the place start to show themselves. The power cuts off every night at 8pm, and the water is unreliable. Roshan encounters problems with corruption, attitudes to caste, and arranged marriage, that do not gel with his own Western ideas.
And then there’s the Black Monkey.
From the moment Roshan arrives in Delhi, the biggest news story dominating the city is of “The Black Monkey” – a creature terrorising the residents.

 The story grows more and more out of control, with hysteria around “The Black Monkey” building to fever pitch. How the “Black Monkey” affects the Delhi-6 community forms the backbone of the 2nd act of the film, where the community, family spirit that Roshan has come to love and embrace in India breaks down into secular violence, pitting neighbours and friends against each other.
My one complaint is that it does get a tad preachy towards the end, but I didn’t really mind, given the overall calibre of the performances and the loveliness of the film.If you’ve let ‘meh’ reviews put you off this one in the past, GO AND WATCH IT NOW. 

Another world, a different time

Lok Parlok (T. Rama Rao, 1979) 
Oh, where do I even begin with Lok Parlok?
On the one hand, Lok Parlok is precisely what it looks like: a mildly insane crackfest starring Jeetendra in his prime.
Yes. Let’s start with that.
The film begins with neighbours Amar (Jeetendra) and Kalincharan (Madan Puri) at war. Kalicharan, the current head of the village panchyat, a greedy, self-serving and apparently quite corrupt man, HATES Amar, because Amar is committed to justice, educates the local farmers on their rights and generally seems like a pretty good guy to have in your corner.

 It took me a while to figure out he means “nightingale” 

The two start out pettily killing each others pets (Kalicharan shoots one of Amar’s pigeons; Amar retaliates by eating Kalicharan’s prize rooster and sending him a box of feathers) but their enmity soon escalates when Amar announces that he will be running against Kalicharan in the upcoming village elections.

And obviously, because Amar is kind to the locals, and gives them information that actually SERVES them, instead of taking advantage and abusing them (ahem, KALICHARAN), Amar is the favourite to win, by A MILLION MILES. And so it goes. So the obvious thing for Kalicharan to do, faced with the Threat Of Amar, is to have him killed.

Oh yeah, Jaya Prada’s in it. Also, that bandage Jeetu’s sporting? He got it cracktastically wrasslin’ a buffalo!

Enter my beloved Amjad Khan as a contract killer, who (reminiscent of that OTHER crackfest, Badle Ki Aag) goes by MANY names, and who has perfected some kind of…acupressure karate chop that kills instantly. 
 Oh yeah, the subtitles on my copy are TERRIBLE (adding to the hilarity). What Amjad my darling is actually saying is that “Overseas, I was known as the Boston Strangler”

Sure enough, Amar, foolishly wandering home alone in the dark one night, gets deftly karate chopped, and the next thing you know, his lifeless body is lying in Kalicharan’s lounge, and Amar’s spirit is ascending, accompanied by two slightly sinister otherworldly watchmen, up to Heaven.

Like so.

And that’s where things get a little bit more nutso.
I mean, up until this point, the film has been a fairly ordinary – if somewhat heavily political (and trust me, WE’LL GET TO THIS) – example of old being gold. It’s got freshfaced Jeetendra being even MORE freshfaced than usual, a wisecracking, idealistic good guy in the face of a clearly defined corrupt and greedy villain. It has one of my favourite things ever, a trope that seems to have died out: lovely, lingering, saturated colour shots of a variety of flowers, standing in for…well, WE ALL KNOW WHAT THE FLOWERS MEAN, RIGHT?

Sex. They mean SEX, people.

It has shots like this:

– look at the glorious rainbow! How much more wholesome and beautiful and just heartwarming can you GET?

Also, it has Jeetendra kicking ASS in a mad, gravity defying, totally ridiculously awesome brawl against a bunch of Kalicharan’s hired goons and totally owning them.

My point is, up until Amar dies, Lok Parlok is basically fairly interchangeable with any 70s Bollywood film.
But then Amar ends up in Heaven, where he’s told he’ll only stay for a matter of hours, because his sins outweigh his virtues: he’s due in Hell any minute.

One of the BEST things about Lok Parlok’s depiction of Heaven is that you are greeted by a disembodied voice, not unlike that of an Arrivals announcer at an airport.

And the madness this ushers in is more than just some deliciously shonky special effects.

Ever the rebel, Amar takes being dead remarkably well: in fact, his first action in Heaven, where a dance recital is being performed, is to jump in and show the dancing goddesses just how out of date theirdance steps have become over the eons. Seriously. Amar is all about the butt wiggle and channelling part Elvis, part Shammi Kapoor, delighting in pissing off the tiny population of Heaven, before he gets sent to Hell, where he is apparently supposed to be.

And that is where Amar really gets to work. Ever the public defender, Amar becomes concerned with the conditions that the…I guess you call them demons?…are working under: Hell is understaffed, the demons don’t get overtime, no-one has ever arranged proper shifts in the centuries the demons have been working, punishing the sinners. Amar takes it upon himself to unionise the demons, who – once they grasp the idea of strikes and unions – enthusiastically elect Amar their leader and march to Yamaraj (the God of Hell) to demand better conditions.

And then Amar pulls his next trick. When the Yamaraj and his assistant, Chitragupta, are confronted with the disgruntled demons en masse, Amar convinces them that it would be totally justified to just lock the gate to Hell for a while and go on holiday…but of course, Amar needs to go back to Earth for a while too, if that’s okay with them? And that’s what happens. Yamaraja and Chitragupta, the two characters least prepared for a sojourn on Earth, head off for an Earthly vacation (with predictable comic consequences). Amar heads back to Earth to take his revenge on Kalicharan (and IT’S AWESOME and more than a little cracked out – not least the part where Jeetendra DIGS HIMSELF OUT OF HIS OWN GRAVE). And with the doors to Hell locked, the striking demons shut inside, all over Earth, dead bodies COME BACK TO LIFE when the souls intended for Hell can’t get in.
As a glitzy, special effects laden star vehicle alone, Lok Parloksucceeds in being extremely enjoyable. It’s a lot funnier than you’d expect a film heavily focussed on death and politics to be; a lot of that has to do with the fish out of water antics of the Yamraja and Chitragupta as they play tourist on Earth, and in Amar’s sneaky revenge tactics against Kalicharan and vice versa (Slight spoiler: it involves another of my favourite Bollywood tropes: DOUBLE ROLE! As well as playing the righteous, middle class Amar, Jeetu takes on the role of an hilarious illiterate chaiwalla named Ram Gupta, who Kalicharan employs to impersonate Amar to convince everyone that he didn’t in fact murder Amar in cold blood…)

But the REALLY interesting thing is that this seemingly fluffy, silly, most cracktastic of films is actually operating on a whole other level as well.
First of all, it IS hard to ignore that the film, for a fluffy screwball comedy, does contain quite a heavy emphasis on politics. Even before Amar dies, unionises the demons in hell, and demonstrates to Yamaraj HOW HE CAN USE THE EXISTING CONSTITUTION (the book of Dharma) to justify a lockout, there’s a strong focus on the political battle between Kalicharan and Amar for panchyat leader, and on the tactics employed by both sides to influence voting.
There are a lot of seemingly throwaway snide little comments too, that have not a lot to do with the plot onscreen, but obviously have SOME agenda behind them.

Which is, errr, pretty much what Indira Gandhi did when she declared Emergency. Giving herself absolute power and stripping the people of their basic civil rights.

It’s worth remembering that India’s Emergency only ended a couple of years before this film released. The Emergency was widely decried as “The Death Of Democracy” in India, and an argument can definitely be made that Amar symbolises “Democracy” in Lok Parlok.

There are so many sneaky, suspiciously on the nose references that with a bit of background reading (The Emergency is a bit more complicated than I can go into here, plus, like any historical event, perspectives vary) it becomes fairly obvious that Lok Parlokis a political satire, digging at the various, and (at the time of its release) very recent injustices and crimes of the government during the Emergency period.

Seriously. Jeetendra as political crusader. IT HAPPENED.

Marvellously mediocre

De Taali (Eshwar Niwas, 2008)

There used to be a free to air TV channel here in NZ that, for some reason or another, never had the ‘good’ movies. In the prime time slot, when the other channels were screening, I dunno, The Sopranos and 5 year old Hollywood blockbusters that everyone has heard of, this channel played, I swear on my life, EVERY NIGHT, these gloriously mid 90s mediocre films apparently aimed firmly at Generation X. I cannot remember the title of a single one of them, because they were all pretty much interchangeable. They always starred some slacker guy played by Jason or Jeremy London (OMG REMEMBER THE LONDON TWINS?!) in a glamourous dot-com or advertising job, and basically nothing happened for two hours except people talked a lot, with a bunch of DATED POP CULTURE REFERENCES!, and there was inevitably some cute girl who Jeremy or Jason London would have coffee with and they’d wind up together. Mediocre? YOU BET.
Did I watch those movies EVERY GODDAMN NIGHT?
I don’t know what it is in my DNA, but I have a real soft spot for films that are perfectly average. There’s something comforting and soothing about their ordinaryness. I’m not talking about kitschy badness or cracktastic levels of greatness; forget that for now, I’m talking perfectly ordinary, completely run of the mill, kind of forgettable films. The kind that play night after night on some random channel because, I don’t know, the rights are cheap. The kind that some people pad the beginnings of their filmographys with, or that star one of those actors that make a career out of C grade films like these. The kind of film that despite its awesomeness, NOBODY has ever heard of. The kind that GET GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE WHEN YOU ORDER OVER A SET $ AMOUNT OF DVDS.
De Taali fits all of my incredibly specific criteria:
  • I had never heard of it until I received it as a bonus free dvd with a dvd order
  • It stars Riteish Deshmukh and Ayesha Takia – both lovely actors with decent films to come under their belts, although come to think of it, they tend to be found in ensemble films or as “second leads” WHICH JUST PROVES MY POINT;
  • It also stars Aftab Shivdasani!!! (I LOVE AFTAB, SHHHHHH). This ups the glorious shameful pleasure factor x 400
  • It is neither so terrible that it becomes cracktastic, nor so amazing it becomes ridiculous awesome. Apparently, on its release, it got pretty dismal reviews (although Riteish, quite deservedly, was singled out for a fantastic comic performance).
  • It is merely fantastically, enjoyably average. AND I REALLY LOVE IT.
So. De Taali is a story of three friends: Paglu (Ritesh Deshmukh), Amu (Ayesha Takia) and Abhi (Aftab Shivdasani), who are super close – they even (although they are well into their twenties) have a “boys only” club-house (Amu is counted as an honorary boy, obviously).

Abhi is like…rich, with an indulgent businessman papa who gives him what the Sopranos would refer to as a “no show” job at the family business (basically, it doesn’t matter much if he never turns up, he still gets paid). Abhi funds the the gang’s random adventures like spur of the moment trips to Mauritius to go shark diving…except that he has a tendency to fall in love at the drop of a hat (or the blink of an eye) which means fun vacations are often put into jeopardy because of Abhi’s lovesickness.

Paglu is the funny slacker member of the gang: he has NO job and gets out of paying the rent on his flat by (this is awesome) CONVINCING THE LANDLORD THAT HE IS A KING DEALING WITH A DISTANT WAR AND HIDDEN ENEMIES AND THUS HAS NO TIME TO THINK ABOUT THE PETTY REALITIES OF PAYING RENT.
And Amu – well, Amu is the sensible one. She also works for Abhi’s dad (Anupam Kher) but SHE ACTUALLY DOES GO TO WORK, and takes it seriously, and is generally the voice of reason when Paglu and Abhi have harebrained schemes. Like sharkdiving in Mauritius.
So, the story really revolves around what happens when, after Abhi’s wayward heart is broken by the latest in a string of WILDLY INAPPROPRIATE GIRLS (this one hilariously played by Neha Dhupia in a special appearance as a girl who talks to dead people) and well-meaning Paglu plants the seeds in Amu’s mind that PERHAPS she and Abhi are perfect for one another. What follows is a case of inevitable misunderstanding as Amu convinces herself that a) she is in love with Abhi and b) that he is about to announce his love for HER.
In actual fact…things get slightly more complicated, because Abhi thinks he has already met the new love of his life: Kartika (Rimi Sen).
Awesomely, the film suddenly veers from a romantic comedy about the tragedy of unrequited love between childhood friends, into having Paglu and Amu realise that Kartika is a massive gold-digger who has pretty much lied about EVERYTHING just to hook Abhi – in fact, she creates entire new identities to ensnare unsuspecting men for their assets. And when Abhi refuses to listen to his friends, and instead proposes to Kartika, PAGLU AND AMU ARE FORCED TO CLUMSILY KIDNAP AND TORTURE KARTIKA TO SAVE THEIR FRIEND.

ICING ON THE CAKE (possibly THE reason to see this film): there’s a Big B themed party. And it’s awesome.

Again, this week’s theme troubles me, because I really have a total absence of shame about my extreme enjoyment of every facet of this production.