Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mithun Da Day!

I whiled away part of my Saturday engrossed in my latest book purchase (Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, which weighs about twenty pounds, and discusses low-budget horror films in encylopedic but hilarious detail, including some familiar obscurities like Death Bed and Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and some truly obscure obscurities, like a disco Dracula's daughter film called Nocturna. I'll be hitting eBay later).

And speaking of disco, the other occupation for my lazy Saturday was finally watching the Mithun Chakraborty song compilation Everybody Dance With Jimmy. The first important factoid is that it contains no songs from Disco Dancer. I don't know if there was a rights issue, or if it just reflects the fact that DD is a Mithun's Greatest Hits collection all by itself. The other factoid is that about a half dozen of the fifty songs don't have any music (which meant I got it super-cheap, and I figure someday I'll watch those songs with some random Bappi music playing on the stereo, and it'll all be good).

For your edification, here are the top craziest numbers of on the DVD:

The fourth craziest is "Naa Main Hoon Tera" from Wardat. This would be a pretty standard love duet frolic among the mountaintops, except for the fact that the lovers appear to be tripping. Not only is there a great deal of stumbling around, but there are a lot of "psychedelic" color effects, which generally means one thing. I haven't seen the movie yet, but Memsaab has described it very delightfully here, thankfully cluing me in to the presence of "aphrodisiac-infested rice." Well, thank goodness there's an explanation!

The third strangest song, which I can only hope makes more sense in context, is "Pehle Rock and Roll," from a movie called Main Balwan. Needless to say, this went straight to the top of my Netflix queue. (There's another song on the disc where Mithun seems to be enticing a group of nuns into a dance-off, so that's also a selling point). Netflix makes it sound like a very straightforward crime drama, with Mithun as an "upstanding Inspector," but it wouldn't be the first time their descriptions were completely misleading. Based on this clip, I suspect he's the cop investigating the crimes that took place in mid-80s Michael Jackson videos. Between all the gang members in "Beat It" and "Bad," that must have kept him busy.

The second weirdest is "Wanted Koi Ludera" from Wanted. There are some movie clips available on YouTube, but tragically, none of this song, which seems to be taking place in India's most popular cowboy disco. A girl in shiny boots gyrates to a disco tune, in front of a disco ball, for an appreciative crowd of cowboys in a Wild West-looking Saloon. Eventually Mithun bursts through the swinging doors, drinks some whiskey, smokes a cigar, and generally looks like the sullen, unshaven Sheriff in town. Then Shammi Kapoor walks in, sits down, and the two trade meaningful looks. All while Shammi is apparently nibbling a large root vegetable of some kind. Fortunately, Nehaflix has this, so there may be eventual updates.

And finally, the craziest song on the DVD, and that's frankly saying a lot: "Aankhon Se Peele 362436," from the movie Roti Kee Keemat. It is not often that I am rendered speechless, but this'll do it!

The movie is described thusly on the IMDB: "This is the story of Shankur, a kind generous man who's path in life is to help those who are less fortunate and need food...Will Shankur ever fulfill his dreams of ridding his town of child hunger?" If you can square that plotline with the sight of Mithun beaming in spangly Mae West drag .... I don't even know how to finish this sentence.

Possibly the best $3 I ever spent!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

More on those feisty Bollywood critics

Picking up where I left off...

I certainly don't mean to imply that I only read things when I agree with them and their premises. Reading things in opposition is actually a pretty good source of inspiration for me. It's useful to know what different attitudes people have, and sometimes to counter their objections. But I don't need to be unduly influenced by people operating from what I consider misguided premises. I'm generally annoyed when writers assume that I'm bothered by my position vis-a-vis a cultural hegemony, or that I think my taste is somehow invalidated because it's not shared by everyone. Hey, that's what the oppressors think! Fight the power!

(Okay, sorry -- had to shake off the fact that I just used the phrase "cultural hegemony" with more or less a straight face. It's sometimes easier to use the shorthand that exists...)

Anyway. I'm up to page 110 in The Bollywood Reader, and have had various insights which I must share, because this is a blog, after all.

The introduction continued on about other things, and then made a very good point, that "detractors of popular Hindi cinema" are "often invested in social realist narratives." (p. 10) Yes! Exactly! I am NOT invested in social realist narratives, which was clear when I studied literature (well, I still do, but only as a hobby). I'm not opposed to social realism per se, but nor do I see any reason for it to be the standard by which all styles and genres are judged.

On that note, a later essay criticizes much writing on Bollywood for its "insistence of evaluating Hindi cinema in terms of film-making practices which it has itself rejected." (p. 24). Again I say, yes! Exactly! This same scenario plays wherever there is an art form to be critiqued: there's a limited standard of what styles are considered "serious," then some critics judge everything by that standard, even when it's completely irrelevant to the intent of the artist, or the taste of the audience.

My last tidbit for the morning, before I decide what to watch (and after all this thinking, it had better be something ridiculous), comes from an essay called "Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum's Eye View of Politics." The author's premise is that "the right metaphor for the Indian popular cinema...turns out to be the urban slum." (p. 74) I won't get into the details, until this bit: "to return to our metaphor, the urban slum consists of people who are uprooted and partially decultured, people who have moved out of traditions and have been forced to loosen their caste and community ties." (p. 77) I wrote one word in the margin of the book.

"America!"

Friday, August 28, 2009

The trouble with academia

Much of the academic criticism on Bollywood films is oddly similar to the kind of thing I've spent so many years reading on the subject of disreputable horror movies. If I heard it once, I heard it a million, etc: going on about "the other," which is contrasted to an inherent but ill-defined norm, and how the visual POV is assumed to be that of a white male establishment -- to which I always responded, "sez who?"

Now, I'm barely into the well-meaning introduction to a collection of scholarly essays called The Bollywood Reader, and am finding similar assumptions about the reader's approach the material:

"How do we work against readings of Hindi and other Indian cinemas that reproduce the West as the nature cradle and crucible of film...? How do we work against several decades of discourses that have dismissed popular Hindi cinema as merely entertainment or time pass for the illiterate masses?" (p. 3)

We don't have to! There's no reason to give readings that consider all other films as subordinate to (mainstream) Western films so much power. And if discourses are free to dismiss whole swathes of culture they think are beneath them, I feel free to dismiss those discourses. Just like in horror criticism, if some scholars want to limit their perceptions, that's their loss!

QED.

Hacker and Pollyanna are not mutually exclusive

The last few weeks I've been neglecting everything -- just too busy, which is not a condition I prefer. I did manage to get moved into a new cubicle at work, which is already more homey than the old, thanks in part to the addition of my ishta devata (Rishi Kapoor). Seriously, this is how cults start: it's all a joke until it starts working for you. But I'm not (totally) crazy: I know that Rishi, as a person, isn't actually a god. However, the qualities he stands for as a screen personality (wearing ridiculous glittery pantsuits, throwing rose petals from helicopters, and singing bhajans until old ladies are cured of blindness) are all things in which I can believe!

So last night I was unwinding with a book called The Best Software Writing I (edited by Joel Spolsky), which I bought mainly because I enjoy the very idea of anyone anthologizing software writing like it's short stories. And, of course, I do have an interest in computers: there are stacks of 2600 magazines all over the house, even though I don't understand most of what they're saying. I've been reading a lot about linguistics recently, similarly: they start talking about the epiglottals and my eyes glaze over. I just try to focus on the broad strokes.

Anyway, there's an essay in the book called "Great Hackers," by Paul Graham. What he means is, of course, not hackers in the malicious sense, or even necessarily in the 2600 sense of curious people with a rebellious attitude toward technology, but more or less computer programmers who are great creative thinkers. He's identifying the qualities companies should look for in their tech people. And I came across this sentence: "This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something's broken, they need to fix it."

Here I've always thought that was just because I'm a Pollyanna goody-goody. But maybe I'm a hacker after all! Fortunately, because I am in fact a goody two shoes, I won't be using my powers for evil anytime soon...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the ongoing series: What's Wrong with this World?

I try, I really do, to just check my email without being sucked into whatever ludicrous stories Yahoo is pushing on me. Especially, say, when I'm not even remotely thinking about job interviews or tips thereon. But morbid curiosity is, after all, what killed the Goth cat. Today, it was the phrase "Don't be a smiley face" that caught my attention and made me say "Fine! I'll click on it!"

Yes, the "Yahoo! hotjobs" (sic) site's top, number one, biggest job interview faux pas is: smiling too much. Apparently, smiling makes a person seem nervous and phony. One is supposed to be "thoughtful and pleasant," but only "smile when there's something to smile about."

Of course, someone like me will say: there's always something to smile about!

I think the business world has a lot to answer for when it's considered sensible advice to tell people not to smile. Fortunately, from my observations, many people are much more successful at it than I am, so good for them. The next dour and seemingly unfriendly customer service person I see, I'll just think, well, they're probably not allowed to smile! Just not professional enough.

I wonder if I can do something like the pedometer challenge: a smileometer. When I leave the house, see how long it takes me before I smile at some random person on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, if I stop for coffee, it'll all be over before it starts...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yes, keep laughing I did

Rakesh Rohan's Karan Arjun was (along with the no-budget slasher film Mardi Gras Massacre) one of the first movies that I had to stop dead to blog about in mid-watch -- so bursting was I to share the absurdity with the world. Koyla lived up to its predecessor, so I've already posted about the film's key elements: mute-with-a-mullet, ventriloquism, and cannabis. If you're not already thinking "I must see this! Now!" then it's probably not for you.

And that's a good thing to know, because Koyla is definitely not for everybody. The violence is surprisingly bloody, and the whole storyline is unsavory, with poor Madhuri in constant danger of rape, and eventually thrown into a brothel. (Like his character in Dance Dance, this is one of Amrish Puri's pervy bad guys).

When I first heard about this movie, and how Amrish (a.k.a. Raja Sahib) raises mute Shankar (a.k.a. Shah Rukh) like a dog, I had two immediate thoughts: that sounds kind of like the Jet Li action picture, Unleashed! (Although for once, Koyla came out much earlier). Also: a mute Shah Rukh? Who still sings? This notion added a new layer of wonderfulness to the life-changing experience that was "Dard-e-Disco," and had me seriously hoping for a moment of "Idiot! Dream sequence! SRK can do anything!"

Oddly, the problem of picturizing songs on a mute character was handled much more realistically than I thought it would (or could) be. And who would have expected that in a film where the hero's muteness is eventually cured by getting his throat slit? (Probably not a recommended medical treatment). Or where he strolls coolly after the bad guy, despite the fact that he's on fire?

The first song is a fantasy by Madhuri, who's seen a photo of Shah Rukh and doesn't know he's mute. The second is an adorable sequence (seen here) in which he appears to sing, but it's all the result of Johnny Lever's ventiloquism. The third is a duet with Madhuri; when it's Shah Rukh's turn, he mimes his response, while the voiceover sings behind him.
Depite all its bizarre elements, the storyline is pretty simple. The dissipated Raja Sahib tricks Madhuri into thinking she's marrying his slave boy. I don't know when they spirited Shah Khan off to Glamour Shots, but that picture looks like a glossy he'd send out looking for modeling gigs, rather than the portrait of a guy who runs through the mud with a pack of dogs. Anyway, she's horrified to awake from a swoon and find herself married to a creepy old fellow instead. Various acts of violence and domestic angst reveal the Raja's true nature to his formerly most loyal "pet," who ultimately faces off in an intense Eyeball Duel with his master:

vs.

Eventually the truth comes out about who killed Shankar's parents and muted him with hot coals, setting him on a quest to not only rescue the heroine, but also gain gruesome revenge on the way. It's kind of like The Crow, actually, only with a pretty girl looking on approvingly.

(As a point of historical fact, we have my first-ever screenshot! FINALLY! Fittingly, a close-up of the Amrish Crazy Eye).

Koyla is not the kind of film that normal people would call "delightful" (Or, well, maybe it is. Normality is not my forte). But that's the word that keeps coming to mind. I guess in the Sandman comics, the character who had exemplified Delight later turned into Delirium, and that's exactly the kind of movie this is!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

If we laugh, then we'll keep laughing

Koyla =

Shah Rukh Khan as a mute with a mullet.

Johnny Lever with a ventriloquist's dummy.

A really young-looking Madhuri Dixit (and it was the same year as Dil To Pagal Hai -- huh), and a group of small children, stealing sweets from a temple, which turn out to be laced with cannabis. Leading to a musical number with the chorus: "In the intoxication of cannabis, we have become one./Hail to Lord Shiva!" It includes such fine lyrics as "We'll rule the whole world./We'll dance and make everyone dance along./No one will be able to stop us./If we laugh, then we'll keep laughing." Words to live by, although I don't need cannabis to get that effect. I'm just high on life, and massive amounts of caffeine.

You know, people tend to speak respectfully of Rakesh Roshan. But I'm only nineteen minutes into this, the third of his movies that I've seen (after Karan Arjun and Krrish), and so far, they all seem pretty insane...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Impeccable Credentials

Among various odds and ends this weekend, I came across reference to an artist who is a Renaissance Man and a half. He was a principal dancer in New York's Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and had his own troupe; he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting; and won Tony Awards for both directing and costume design. That's an incredibly wide range of acclaim, in about the upper-crustiest realms of arts society there is in this country.

Nonetheless, he is primarily known for this. Well, and his awesome Baron Samedi.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Following Where the Chocolate Hero Leads

I just had the kind of online morning that I used to have, back in the days before the Internet "signal-to-noise" ratio was all a-skew toward selling things to the searcher. (Although despite this consumer-oriented paradigm, I have been completely unable to rustle up a copy of the K.L. Saigal Devdas, so any leads on that are as welcome as info on the actual topic at hand. DVD, VHS, I'll even try VCD).

Anyway: it all started with the phrase "chocolate boy," and how it always makes me giggle. I think the context was Imran Khan's recent interviews about he doesn't want to be labeled a chocolate boy. (Of course not; nobody ever does). In explaining the term to someone unfamiliar with it, I believe I called Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson a chocolate boy, and discovered it's actually a fairly useful description!

Then last night, as I was reading Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History, I got to the early days of Ashok Kumar, who I always associate with his roles from the '50s onward -- up to, say, Jewel Thief -- when he was older, burlier, and more ruggedly handsome. Nonetheless, according to Bose, critics of his youthful debut role in Jeevan Naya "had called him a 'chocolate hero.' " (p. 113)

Since Bose also refers to Ashok as "the Hindi screen's first matinee idol" (p. 112), it made me wonder how much farther back this chocolate hero/chocolate boy thing goes. (The two phrases seem to be used interchangeably, even in the recent blurbs about Imran). Was Ashok the first chocolate boy of Hindi cinema?

A Google search was not, needless to say, particularly helpful, but it did bring up some amusing thumbnails. Like this one, from a list of WordPress tags about Omkara, that most chocolate-boyish of films: "The earliest record of it can be found in Vedic texts..." Sadly, I don't think they mean that the earliest record of the phrase "chocolate boy" can be found in Vedic texts.

Another random hit brought me to a blog called The Bioscope, which is dedicated to silent films and their technology. I started scrolling through the recent entries, and discovered a post about Prakash Traveling Cinema, a short film directed by Megha B. Lakhani. It's a documentary about a pair of friends who run a 100-year-old hand-cranked film projector on a pushcart, showing clips of Bollywood movies they've edited together themselves.

You can watch it on YouTube (and I highly recommend it):

Prakash Traveling Cinema Part One
Prakash Traveling Cinema Part Two

This was a fascinating diversion, not least because this is a job my husband is eminently qualified to do. He could edit the film stock and run the projector, and I could do the huckstering! Before I drifted off for more coffee, it occurred to me: what even brought me this direction? Well, the site was posting excerpts from a 1912 book called How to Run a Picture Theatre, and referred to Chocolate Sellers (a.k.a. chocolate boys) during a discussion of the basic staff needed to operate a silent film theater.

None of this helped me unseat Ashok from the position of Original Chocolate Hero, but it's all been interesting!

Nonetheless, if anyone's seen reference to a chocolate hero or chocolate boy in Indian cinema prior to 1936 (or knows where I can get a copy of Devdas!), feel free to drop me a note.