Monday, March 29, 2010

Equal Opportunity Devotion

Tirupati Shree Balaji (1997)
(Hindi-dubbed version of the Telugu Annamayya, aka Bhakti Annamayya)

Finally, I've watched a movie about a male devotee of a male God! Funny that it's about the poet Annamayya (a.k.a. Annamacharya), who I first heard of in a book about male writers who took on female poetic voices to write erotic love songs to the gods.

That was When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others, edited and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman. There's also a book solely of Annamayya's poem's (only a taste of the reputed 32,000 or so -- who did he think he was, Lata Mangeshkar?) called God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati, translated again by Rao and Shulman. I recommend either, as well as Nanditha Krishna's lovely, art-filled Balaji - Venkateshwara: Lord of Tirumala - Tirupati: An Introduction.

The courtesan-poetry business doesn't come up in the movie, but it does deal with the link between spirituality and worldly enjoyment, emphasizing an anecdote from Annacharya's (almost certainly apocryphal) biography: his romancing of two sisters. Considering how many Hindi films I've seen on the theme of marriage and family disapproval, it really stood out to me how everyone in the film was encouraging the match between the pretty twins and the wanna-be ascetic.

Finally, his mother asks pointedly, "Which god has asked you not to marry and renounce the world?" The disguised Vishnu takes her side, and the three get married in a traditional ceremony.

The movie contains lots of beautiful gowns and beautiful temples, which seems appropriate for such a gilded god as Balaji, and won the National Film Award for its music. Besides the aesthetic niceties, I also enjoyed a lot of the theological elements. For instance, there's a nice scene in which our hero, his mother, and his girlfriends argue why women should be taught the Vedas, pointing out the female rishis, and Gayatri and Sarasvati as female gods.

The religious part of the movie is refreshingly uninterested in suffering or sacrifice. Annamayya's conflicts are more internal: what should he do with his life? What path is right for him? The reason he was born in the first place (magically generated from Vishnu's sword), is because of the particular appreciation the gods have for hearing their praises sung in the vernacular, or "folk" languages. (The opening scenes show Vishnu being worshipped in various languages, but not Telugu).

When he occasionally gets distracted from this destiny, the gods gently nudge him back on his way, those experiences seem to enrich his art. It's a nice middle-path view of fate: he has a specific purpose on earth, whether he knows it or not, but he's not punished for going off-task. Losing the path leads back to the path -- as long as he doesn't go so far into earthly pleasures that he forgets the spiritual side altogether, or vice versa.

Speaking of indulging in the worldly pleasures, look at this outfit! And this bed! OMG, I want them RIGHT NOW!

Once Annamayya devotes his life to singing for Vishnu, wives by his side, the jealous temple administrator brings him to the attention of the King (the very cool Mohanbabu) and his new Queen (the stunning Roja, above). In response, they offer the singer a position at court, which he rather grudgingly accepts. Eventually, they get bored with nothing but devotional songs all the time, and start commissioning songs dedicated to themselves. Of course, he's not willing to do that, so the King angrily sends him to the dungeon with the classic line "Torture him til he sings my praises!"

You might want to listen to what you said there, King Babu. I don't think that's going to work.

Happily, it's not a spoiler to say that eventually the gods are going to put everything right.

My only real quibble with the movie is that star Nagarjuna Akkineni is okay -- maybe not quite enough charismatic to score two hot twin sisters -- but he's not a very convincing lip-syncher. That's kind of a flaw in a movie about a singer.

There are loads of Annamayya kirtans on YouTube, for further study. You'll also be happy to know that if you're on Facebook, you can become fans of Balaji and Annamacharya. Despite my frequent frustrations, the modern world does have its moments!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why Don't We Paint the Town?

Following a heart attack, Bob Fosse wrote, directed, and choreographed All That Jazz (1979), a film version of his own death. Which is envisioned as a glitzy production number, hosted by Ben Vereen as a '70s variety show star in cheesy sequins, and with his producers in the audience to gasp "this must have cost a fortune!" That sounds like an improvement on the tunnel of white light to me.

Hard-living show biz veteran Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, in a whole new level of awesome) has his hands full. He's directing and choreographing a multimillion-dollar Broadway show that stars his ex-wife; editing a feature film (clearly based on Fosse's Lenny Bruce biopic); and juggling the women in his life, all talented dancers. These include the girlfriend (Ann Reinking, in a part based on herself), who adores him despite his double standards about infidelity, which he cheerfully admits are appalling. Then there's the ex-wife (Leland Palmer, and hey, did David Lynch steal the name of Laura Palmer's dad from her?) and young daughter (the very talented Erzsebet Foldi, in her only movie credit). They both see right through him, largely accepting his flaws, but can still be hurt by his behavior.

He's also haunted by visions of Jessica Lange, an Angel of Death who guides him into looking back on his life. This was a comeback role for Lange, who hadn't worked in the three years since her 1976 debut in King Kong didn't do her any favors.

The behind-the-scenes look at theatrical life is sometimes poignant, as when Gideon bullies and then encourages a struggling dancer with whom he had a one-night-stand. And funny, when he takes a corny, stereotypically "Broadway" song with an airplane metaphor, and turns it into "Air-otica," a stylized, symbolic orgy that features Conan the Barbarian's Sandahl Bergman thrashing around topless.

No, I didn't screenshot the toplessness. "Sorry" or "You're welcome," depending.

The film depicts dancing realistically, as very hard work but also a source of pleasure and personal pride. Even someone like me, who doesn't generally care for the conventions of the Broadway style, can appreciate the skill of the performers and the amazing things they can do with their bodies.

Scheider, our beloved Chief Brody, shines in the film, and was deservedly nominated for Best Actor. He looks particularly wiry and athletic, and more like a dancer than his Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfuss, who was originally cast. The character spends most of the movie as a selfish, self-destructive bastard, but he has to remain likable enough for the audience to care about -- as well as to explain why the other characters stay loyal to him. Embodied by Scheider, he isn't a monster, but a confused, messed-up human being.

A very young-looking John Lithgow appears as a rival director, oozing with passive-aggressive smarm. It's also a delight to find Wallace Shawn in a teensy scene, and CCH Pounder (who's hardly aged a day) as a callous nurse who doesn't believe the hospitalized Gideon's heart symptoms.

The level of autobiographical trivia is such that the film-in-a-film's Lenny Bruce character is played by Cliff Gorman, who originated the part on Broadway that Dustin Hoffman played in Fosse's film version of Lenny. Speaking of Hoffman, he's the one who beat out Scheider at the Academy Awards, for Kramer Vs. Kramer.

The Wikipedia has a great (but sadly uncredited) quote from Fosse: “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you feel." Hopefully he said it, because it shows a real understanding of how music and dance work for an audience, narratively and emotionally. And why so many dance-oriented American films leave me cold.

Fosse died in 1987, at age 60, of another heart attack. In honor of him, and of Roy Scheider, who died in 2008, here's the grand finale, "Bye Bye Life," based on the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

You are My Chicken Fry, Part 2

"Do you want to be a hero? Or would you rather be a chicken-man?"
-- from Repo Man

Unlike in the American idiom, where "chicken" usually means "coward," the hero in the 2009 Tamil release Kanthaswamy doesn't have to be one or the other. He can be both!

I believe it was Filmi Girl who posted the awesome trailer on her blog, although I can no longer find the evidence. When I first watched it, I was swept away by its spectacular magnificence. Or as I think were the exact words: "It's like Batman. But instead of a bat, he's a -- chicken?"

It is truly truth-in-advertising here, because for once, the trailer gives a pretty accurate idea of what the movie is like. And while it didn't quite reach the heights of lunacy that I was hoping for: come on, it's a superhero in a chicken costume! That's all I really need to know.

With early research, I also discovered that this film was the source of the annoyingly catchy "Excuse Me Mr. Kanthaswamy" that was very popular on the Hyderabad radio stations at the time -- but more on that later.

The movie is very glossy and expensive-looking right from the beginning, with action sequences full of quickly edited martial arts moves. However, the costumed superhero does in fact make "buck, buck, buck-caw" chicken noises while he fights, which brings it to a whole different level.


Kanthaswamy is both a CBI agent, taking down criminals by day, and a costumed superhero ... taking down criminals by night. This was momentarily puzzling, but it's all part of a Robin Hood thing. In his day job he confiscates the ill-gotten goods, and uses the disguise to redistribute the money to the needy. "Kanthaswamy will see that the gap between the poor and rich is minimized," as one song puts it. Without the secret identity business, he'd probably lose access to the evidence locker pretty quickly.

As it is, his shenanigans, giving money to the poor who leave prayer requests tied to the sacred tree at the Kanthaswamy/Murugan temple, draw the attention of an inspector who is introduced with the caption "Bharathidasan IPSDIGCBCID."

At first I thought this acronym was a gag for comedic effect, but I looked it up for you. That's "Indian Police Service" (IPS), "Deputy Inspector General of Police" (DIG), "Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department" (CBCID). Wow.

Kanthaswamy is played by 'Chiyaan' Vikram. The IMDB doesn't know this is the same Vikram starring in the upcoming Raavana, but it appears that he is. Vikram is a well-known playback singer who does his own singing here, which is interesting, and kind of retro. So far, I have no information on the "Chiyaan," or why they put that in quotes. Did you know that Google Translate doesn't have a Tamil option?

Anyway, our hero brings down the crime empire of a bad guy called PPP, who then fakes a stroke for sympathy. All this brings on the enmity of the villain's pampered daughter Subbulakshmi (Shriya Saran), who vows to destroy Kanthaswamy. Both of them pretend to fall in love with the other, as part of their ploys, leading to various complications, and a couple of crazy songs.

First off, there's "Excuse Me." I'd heard this many times, but was completely dumbfounded when I saw the translation for some of the lyrics. The premise is that at this point, she's pursuing him, and he's resisting. Which doesn't explain this:

He: You Hitler's grand daughter. Love is not a Jew to kill it!
She: You Lincoln's grand son. Don't kill me by talking philosophy! I'm Kashmir and you are Pakistan! There will be no end for our fight.

What the? What? WHAT? I heard "Excuse Me" on Radio Mirchi for the first time in ages the other day (obviously an omen of some kind), and when I listened closely, I could hear the word "Hitler." Funny how it never popped out until I knew it was there.

On a lighter note, the next verse includes:

He: You are an egg of a duck and you can't enter into the group of ducks!
She: Don't talk like crazy, you rogue.

Which is the first logical thing anyone's said since the song started.

Then there's the "Meow Meow" number, in which both of them make cat claws and cat faces at each other. Even apart from being a cat song in a chicken movie, it makes me giggle a lot, and also, is a lot racier than I'm used to!

This song also gets an amusing reprise later on. The two are on an airplane, and she corners him in the restroom for a heart-felt talk about how she's learned the error of supporting her evil father, and is now on his side. Meanwhile, all the other First Class passengers imagine that the two are Mile High Clubbin' it in there.

Throughout the movie, we get more explanation about what's going on. The superhero is actually backed by a whole team of experts, college friends who accidentally ran afoul of a crime lord, thus changing the course of their lives. He also has a whole complicated network of informers and helpers. Subbulakshmi solves the mystery of his identity in literally about two seconds, so even as the authorities are zeroing in on his accomplices, her father is able to manipulate him into working for the bad guys. Or so the crime bosses think! All leading to various double-crosses and what have you.

Sadly, the second half gets bogged down in all these machinations. We're not here for a serious crime caper film; we want more Attack of the Neon Chickens stuff!

One intriguing aspect of this admittedly silly film is that the wealthy lifestyles of its characters are openly contrasted with the lives of the poor and downtrodden. There's spoiled Subba living in a mansion, dancing in lavish stage shows, and even Kanthaswamy drives a very expensive-looking car. The people he's helping live in ramshackle houses on dirt roads, and are struggling to find clean drinking water.

A member of the team even brings up the age-old question of how to best help the poor, whether their simple redistribution of wealth to needy cases can ever change things substantially. Are their actions really going to help people in the long run? Kanthaswamy responds that there's "lots of money on one side, and no money on the other side," adding, "What to do?" What to do indeed.

Full disclosure time: I swear, I was half-way through this movie, after weeks of Rock Dancer-related chicken silliness, before it occurred to me that my last name actually means "Rooster" in an Eastern European language that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

If, like me, you simply must see this movie, be warned: Nehaflix only carries a $30 Blu-Ray. Even I'm not that crazy. Once again it was eBay to the rescue, where supplies are hit and miss, but I didn't pay anything like $30 to get my fix of my wild chicken action.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Night-Club Temper

I finally finished Ashok Da. Ranode's Hindi Film Songs: Music Beyond Boundaries (one year after I started it; not uncharacteristic of me, what with the twenty books I have in constant rotation at any time). Much over-my-head technical discussion of songs I will never hear, from movies I will never find. Alas! But also lots of new areas to explore which I can track down, and numerous entertaining tidbits.

Such as, from a discussion of Geeta Roy/Dutt: "It is to be expected that the idiom of night-club songs is too attractive to be restricted to night-club situations and to composers especially fond of that idiom! Geeta's success in vocalising this idiom tempted or prompted composers (even when not otherwise comfortable with this idiom) to use it as also to use it (sic) in non-night-club situations. Under the circumstances, one can describe this way of singing as full of the 'night-club temper'!" (p. 356)

Dividing worldly experience into night-club and non-night-club situations strikes me as a very handy way of looking at things! Or is that just what someone of the "night-club temper" would think?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rab Ne Bana on Main Street

I know: one would think I've said everything that could possibly be said about Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. There's a previous post here, if you have hours and hours with nothing better to do. However, our friends at Deewani for Bollywood and I recently used the film (successfully!) to convert a Bollywood newcomer, and thus had to discuss it all over again at length, which led to some strange new revelations.


Actually, it's really only random happenstance that RNBDJ is the what set off this train of thought, but since it's the example I have at hand, I'm gonna talk about it a little here and there, in as round-about a way as possible. Because that's what I pride myself on.

The couple in RNBDJ each have a separate, largely internal story arc, which cross in the surface storyline about the husband disguising himself and entering a dance contest to woo his wife in disguise. The wife's narrative is about what happens when someone has suffered a tragedy that leaves her in a state of numbness, going through the motions of being alive, thinking she'll never love again. She has to learn that she can bear to go on, and eventually be alive and happy. The husband's narrative is about someone who's spent his life doing without, who has to find out who he really is and what he really wants, and then, most dauntingly, say what he feels and become who he is.

So when their marriage begins, Taani is trying not to feel anything, and Suri is too self-effacing to express himself. I suddenly realized: this could be an Ingmar Bergman film, or a Sinclair Lewis novel!


Once I thought of it in those terms, it occurred to me that, while nobody was ever going to try to marry me off against my will, I definitely do identify in some ways with the conflicts between the individual and society/family/tradition, as seen in many Hindi films. The idea that we have all these freedoms in America -- that "Anything Goes!" -- is to some extent true. But many of these issues turn up in the U.S. as well, albeit in different forms, and expressed in different ways. This is certainly true where I grew up, in a heavily Scandinavianized environment (see previous post on the movie Careful for more insight on that).

India is often talked about as a more tradition-based society than the United States, but within it, there's obviously a great range of attitudes and opinions. For another example, Japan is often publicly depicted as a very conformist environment, certainly as contrasted to "American individualism." But within American society, there can still be tremendous pressure to conform to social standards and family expectations, even if this often goes unspoken. The degree to which that’s true will depend on many factors outside the individual's control.

No society is truly monolithic. The balance between tradition and modernity, between society and the individual, is going to depend on who and where the person in question is. Gender, religion, social class, personal family upbringing, the ethnic background, region, and even the specific town where a person lives, are all going to play a part in how much, and in what way, a person express his or her individuality, and how much they conform or rebel.

Bollywood-specific Tangent #1

There's a commonly floated idea that Kabhi Khushi Khabhi Gham tends to be harder for many Americans to relate to, because ideas of tradition and obeying the family aren't as strong in the U.S. as in India. However, I believe I could remake K3G today and it would be a totally, unquestionably American story.

Here it is: Ryan Reynolds is a handsome, athletic, WASP-y Manhattan businessman, with extremely wealthy and conservative parents (Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton) who have spent his whole life heaping expectations on him. He’s engaged to a staggeringly blonde, Grace Kelly-ish Katherine Heigl, whose parents are long-time friends and business associates of his parents. However, there are hints that with this engagement, he’s given in to the inevitable more than that he’sactually in love with her.

One day, while visiting his retired nanny, he stumbles upon a street parade in Greenwich Village, and there he meets her grandson, played by Nelsan Ellis, who plays Lafayette on True Blood. I don’t mean to typecast the actor, who’s obviously really talented, but I can't help it. That’s totally my concept: Lafayette in the Kajol part. He’s a young African-American man, out and proud, who’s fun, flamboyant, crazy and campy, and unashamedly working as an exotic dancer to support himself and his baby sister.

The two men quickly fall in love, and Ryan decides to break off his engagement to be with Lafayette. This leads to a terrible fight with his father, who gives him the “you’re no son of mine” speech. Several years later, little brother Zac Efron finds out the story behind why his brother moved across the country and never visits anymore. Deciding to reunite the family, he goes to San Francisco and becomes his brother's boarder in a beautiful Victorian home, under an assumed name.

Also living there is Lafayette's younger sister, a wild, aspiring R&B diva, played by whoever the up-and-coming teenage R&B diva of the moment is. She performs some sexy numbers in an inner-city dance club that are going to teach Zac new moves. She agrees to help him in his quest, and the two fall in love, although Zac knows his father will be no happier about him wanting to marry an African-American woman who grew up in the ghetto than about his brother being gay.

We'd even have a subplot about how the Ryan/Lafayette couple have spoiled the crap out of Little Diva because of the love they were denied as children (Ryan because of the repression of the wealthy, Lafayette because his troubled parents abandoned him with his Grandma in the projects, thus showing how people suffer emotionally on all sides of the economic spectrum). They've gone overboard in raising her self-esteem, so she's becoming kind of a man-manipulating monster. Fortunately, family-uniting, started as a lark (and a way to make Zac fall in love with her) will prove she can be empathetic and care about other people.

Geez, no wonder these Bollywood screenwriters do this plagiarism-with-a-twist thing: they write themselves!

The thing is, we don't even have to posit any specific racism or anything here to show that, in a roughly similar situation, it could be as hard for the Ryan Reynolds character to defy his family, his upbringing, the opinion of his entire world, all for the sake of love, as it was for Shah Rukh's.

Architectural Tangent
Then I got to thinking about a conversation I had with my sister, about how different some things are when one travels to different parts of the country. In Boston, for example, there were gardens and courtyards and little architectural delights tucked into all sorts of odd corners in public buildings. My reaction was, they have so much! Why can't we have even a little? Why does everything have to be so plain and unadorned back home? It's like there's a real distrust of anything that smacks of frivolity, that isn't practical, sensible, and nothing but. (And yes, thanks so much to all the exceptions, past and present!)

At least our ancestors here used to lavish their aesthetic sense on church-building. Recent decades have led to a reversal even there: the new churches look like banks on the outside, and are full of tan and beige on the inside. I was startled to discover that this architecture was a conscious choice -- a Suburban Puritan, if you will -- that views beauty as a threatening distraction from God, rather than an awe-inspiring reflection of God. Author Moyra Doorly has called this "the Denial of Transcendence."

It's part of the same idea that when emotions are habitually repressed, even positive emotions can be threatening. Just like it's hard to have color and art and creativity without individuality becoming an issue. When some individuals express their individuality, it threatens the people who've managed to repress theirs. A little color can highlight how bland everything else is. Suddenly the sense of control that people associate with order and safety feels off-balance. Some people may even begin to doubt the premises of control that underlie the society, which will frequently cause them to clamp down even tighter.

Ha! I'm talking about the movie Pleasantville. But it's not like the problem went away because it isn't the '50s anymore.


Lagom and Jantelagen
Now, for all I know, much of this might not be true in other parts of the country (and again, can depend on personal upbringing, among other factors). Where I come from, however, in an environment largely influenced by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants (my own ancestors among them), there are two concepts that, when I first heard about them, automatically made many things click into place.

Lagom is a word that means, more or less, "just enough," or the exact right amount; for example, being satisfied with enough, rather than being greedy. Which not a bad thing, but a concept with positive consequences for social equality can have repressive ones when we're talking about people's private lives. How do you have "just enough" love, but no more? How do you follow your creative dreams without wanting to assert a desire for more in life than you have? Obviously, "just enough" can go too far, as we see with RNBDJ's Suri, who doesn't feel entitled to any more than he has.

See! Told you we'd dip our toes back in Rab Ne Bana Land!

The other concept is Jantelagen, or the Jante Law, which takes its name from the fictional small town of Jante in the 1933 Danish novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by Aksel Sandemose. The book --which sounds like a Danish Main Street -- is strangely hard to come by, considering how famous the jantelagen idea has become.

Here is the "The Law of Jante," which is basically ten ways of saying the same thing:

1. Thou shalt not presume that thou art anyone [important].
2. Thou shalt not presume that thou art as good as us.
3. Thou shalt not presume that thou art any wiser than us.
4. Thou shalt never indulge in the conceit of imagining that thou art better than us.
5. Thou shalt not presume that thou art more knowledgeable than us.
6. Thou shalt not presume that thou art more than us [in any way].
7. Thou shalt not presume that thou art going to amount to anything.
8. Thou art not entitled to laugh at us.
9. Thou shalt never imagine that anyone cares about thee.
10. Thou shalt not suppose that thou can teach us anything.

The "we" is of course the collective community. I took the translation from a website that includes the original Danish. It's from a guy who got a Ph.D. in computer science in Denmark, which seems to have given him some food for thought.


For those of you who've read Main Street (Sinclair Lewis's novel is considerably easier to come by than Sandemose's), it might interest you to know that I grew up 56 miles from the prototype, Lewis's home town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. They were pretty unhappy about it in his time, but now, it's turned into a tourist industry, with the motto "The Original Main Street." What a thing to be proud of! But at least it's not as bad as the witch-killing publicity Salem milks wherever it can.

And speaking of, a few years ago I was talking to a college student who was reading Main Street, and was surprised how relevant it still is. "You could replace the blacksmith with an auto repair shop, set it in the present day, and nobody would know the difference," I agreed.

Again, this is not to say that all small-town folks are petty, close-minded anti-intellectuals. Far from it! But in many cases, the Jante Law is still in effect: and yes, larger communities can have pockets of Jante-ness within them, in neighborhoods, smaller social groups, workplaces, etc. Anywhere that rocking the boat would threaten the group identity.

It's the "hold your horses/put a lid on it" syndrome all over again. Don't think you're important, don't think you're going to amount to anything, don't expect anyone to care about you. In many cases, I think parents who were themselves raised with these notions think this attitude is for their children's own good. They're trying to prepare them for what's perceived as a cold, cruel world, where if you don't expect too much from life, you won't be disappointed. But it's still pretty harsh.


The result is: we grow up being taught that we shouldn't draw attention to ourselves or stand out, and never show that we think we're better than anyone else, even by accident. There are times I have often been accusing of "thinking you're better than everyone else" because I was sitting quietly, reading a book.


Then we grow up and are sent out to compete in the world, to auditions and job interviews and grant applications and first dates, deeply uncomfortable with any kind of self-promotion or "horn-tootiness," as I like to call it. How do you express your feelings and win the true love? How do you "sell yourself" in the job market? How can people who are barely able to accept a simple compliment (not uncommon in these parts) negotiate to get paid what they're worth? You'll never get anywhere in this world if you're a self-effacing Suri, but as soon as you start asserting yourself, there are people who'll accuse you of being a Raj: narcissistic and show-offy.

Obviously, there are people who manage the trick of acting like they're more important and deserve special treatment, without setting off other people's Raj-alarm. I won't give any embarrassing specifics, but with my own eyes I have seen otherwise sensible people suddenly fawn all over Important People just because of the way they're dressed, or because of some title or marker of authority they have.

In many (not all, I realize, but many) cases, these are people who grew up in privileged environments: they had well-off businesspeople for parents, and picked up the social cues to use in certain situations that will allow them to be treated like the Boss without seeming pushy or desperate (which tends to happen to ordinary people who try to assert the same rights).

This is all still part of a larger paradigm of expressing individuality within certain narrowly defined parameters. This is all deeply individual: some people aren't going to relate the jantelagen thing at all -- where to me, it seems almost self-evident. I know that I express my individualism more than a lot of people around me do. I know this because of how often people have reacted to me with strange extremes of horror and admiration. Like I was/am performing some kind of miracle by walking down the street wearing what I feel like wearing.

And really, I'm no Lady Gaga here: it's pretty small potatoes, non-conformity speaking. But that's the point. People act like it takes extreme bravery to go out in public without wearing makeup, if all the other women are wearing makeup. What I do is nothing. But it's a lot more than a lot of people feel they could do.

Running parallel is a strange paradigm that it's okay to excel in football, for example, but not in academics. Maybe ultimately football prowess is less threatening than the idea that some people are actually smarter than others? It's okay to enter a beauty pageant, and compete seriously for the title, possibly again because this is a realm that's set apart from everyday life. Sports and organized competitions mark off specific areas where people can strive to excel. The people who do excel in them, though, are thrown into a love/hate relationship with a public that admires them, but still enjoys seeing them "brought down a peg."

Despite its bravado about "American individualism", on the everday level, the country still has too many people who are afraid of laughing when they think something's funny, of wearing clothes that are too colorful ("flashy"), or expressing any kind of emotion. And, I mean, to some extent they're right to hesitate, because they do open themselves up to the possibility of being judged.

Now, despite what my grandparents, Masters of Jantelagen, thought, I'm of the opinion that if a little emotion and color and weirdness can collapse the whole house of cards of society, then the people in it are wound to an unhealthy tightness. People need those mountain nodes, as in Careful, where "cautious vent can be given to stifled impulses."


In Bollywood films, with censorship more rigorous than in American ones, this can of course occur in the song sequences, which sometimes overflow with eroticism that isn't directly expressed. I remember my original "Yowza!" reaction to Veer Zaara's "Main Yahaan Hoon," which is super-super-sexy, even though the characters haven't had any romantic physical contact, however slight, in the "real" story. There's an aspect to many Hindi films that reflects the repression of emotions and individuality, while still providing a layer that allows a colorful expression of emotions and individuality. Some people might not relate to the repression part, or feel frustrated by it; some people might feel uncomfortable with the expression part; but for some of us, it comes off just right.


Despite my having almost nothing in common with RNBDJ's Suri on any level, I have to admit that the small-town Scandinavian environment I grew up in makes me relate to his struggle to strike the balance between the expectations of others, what he expects from others, and what he really, truly wants out of life. Even more, I relate to the lead character in Billu, who has a stronger sense of self, but similarly expects no positive reinforcement from the people in his community. When he occasionally gets it, it's a surprise.

I can't explain why 2009 was the year that Shah Rukh Khan made two movies exploring these particular themes, or how specifically they might have been viewed in the context of Indian society. But they are definitely more relevant to certain aspects of American society than the makers could probably have guessed.

This influence on my life does perhaps explain why my favorite part of the RNBDJ movie star medley is when, in the Rishi Kapoor section, Sonu Nigam sings "Hum kisise/kum nahin hain" with such confidence.

When I first saw the movie the line was taken from, I was all like, yes! This is the motto for me! Because you'll notice what it says. It's not "I'm better than anyone else." After all, "Thou shalt never indulge in the conceit of imagining that thou art better than us." It's not even "I'm as good as everyone else," which is also problematic. However, it's totally fair under the Law to say, "I'm no less than anyone else." There's really no internal conflict there at all. And yet, the spirit of the law is such that even claiming this much is a powerful assertion of the self and one's right to expect something from life.

One more specific tidbit about RNBJD that came up in the course of these thoughts -- more or less a P.S., on the subject of repressed emotions. There are various movie-within-the-movie scenes of Taani and Suri at the theater, where she enjoys silly action comedies, but dislikes romances. This makes perfect symbolic sense, because she's seeking distraction from her emotions. She's numb, and whenever she starts feeling again, it's going to be painful.

She doesn't want to sit at home alone with her thoughts all day, and physical activity (the dance contest) is a not uncommon thing for people to sublimate their feelings into. (Like on Dexter, when Deb became addicted to working out in the wake of a serious psychological trauma). And part of the reason why she falls for the Raj persona is because to care about anyone, she had to let her defenses down. The reason that can happen is because in the beginning, she doesn't even like him. He irritates her, and she clearly thinks he's an idiot. Therefore, he's totally non-threatening, which allows her to relax, have fun, feel like her old self again, without her attention being drawn to the fact that she's starting to feel again.


If I'd thought of that before, it would have been included in my previous post.


Anyway -- it's been weird writing up these notions, even as disjointed as they are, because it's made me think about various events and trends in my life, which I didn't necessarily want to think about any more than Taani does! I've pretty much come into my own as a non-conformist (one of the advantages of getting older), so I get much less overt tension than I used to from other people. And yet, when I look back, I wonder how much more I might have accomplished if I hadn't had to exert so much energy just in working against resistance.


That's waaaay more than enough introspection for now! Next time, we'll indulge ourselves with what I like to call The Dark Chicken: a Tamil superhero conspiracy! With, yup, chickens. And plenty of them!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Prologue: "Here, cautious vent can be given to stifled impulses"

The first five minutes of Winnipeg director Guy Maddin's Careful (1992) is among the funniest things I have ever seen. And it probably says more, in its bizarre fable-like way, about the environment in which I was raised than I could otherwise explain. The film is set in a fictional European village that is in constant danger from avalanches, that can be triggered by any sound, thus mandating near-total repression of movement and sound.

The rest of the movie can't live up to this opening, and frankly, it doesn't, becoming more weird-for-weird's-sake. That sounds promising, but it gets tiring. As an introduction to some forthcoming thoughts on Bollywood and Scandinavian-American culture (No! Really!), and since there's nothing on YouTube but this trailer, I'm transcribing the words of the dour narrator, with a few notes in parentheses. It seems exaggerated, but it is all SO TRUE.

Careful, Otto!

Don't spill it.

Hold your horses.

Children, heed the warnings of your parents. Peril awaits the uncautious wayfarer, and screws grief where laughter once played.

Think twice.

I'm sure you can live without that.

Don't get wet.

Nature has built for us a beautiful world. Allow yourself to drink in its wonders safely. (We see people looking through binoculars).

The path must be climbed with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat. But beware of your skill at climbing. Skill assures nothing!

The heedless heart can be lured to dangerous heights, the sudden ice field, where a single worn stone prying loose from the path can serenade you with the whistling wind of the death plummet.

Then there was always the avalanche. When the snow relaxes its grip on the slope and is dragged downward under its own crushing weight.
The slightest sound. (A man sneezes).
For any false move by anyone can trigger these deadly landslides and sweep all into oblivion.
Guard yourself and your neighbor against making that fatal sound.

Be vigilant.
You have your binoculars. Use them!

Silence! Propriety!

While clutched to his mother's bosom, a baby in Tolzbad once lost an eye when a carelessly unpinned brooch pierced right through the baby's eyelid. As if infected with this carelessness, the same baby, by then a grown swan-feeder, lost his other eye when he got too close to a clock.

Caution is not enough for the blind.
It wasn't long before the swan-feeder too heard the loud song of the wind.

"You should never hold a baby's face near an open pin." (A different old-timer says this, as a proverb).

Once an avalanche started by the single bleat of a lamb uncovered all the graves.
The dead had been so well-preserved by the ice, long-dead youthful husbands were revisited by their brides, now withered and old. And young parents, by their old children. Henceforth, before burial, all the dead had their hearts perforated with the long nail of the coroner, just to be on the safe side. And ever since, to prevent a repetition of the tragedy, all farm animals have their vocal chords severed.

Absolute silence is required of us.

Children, sit still. The noise of your play must be muted until you comprehend the risk you represent.

Keep a lid on it!

Don't be rash.

I'll do it.

Don't stand so close to the walnut tree!

You'll catch a chill.

Don't put too much pepper on it.

After long research, I have discovered the existence of mountain nodes, rare and extremely hard to find places, quirks of the mountain ranges, where all sounds sent up are perfectly canceled by their own echoes. For here within these acoustic shadows, no dangerous noises can escape to let loose the crushing mass of snow. Here, cautious vent can be given to stifled impulses. We can sing, laugh, cavort, but I must stress, even though safety is assured by the acoustic laws of the ranges, we must not believe ourselves safe.

For always there is wild uncontrolled sound of nature. The terrifying time, twice yearly, when the noisy flocks of migrating geese pass overhead.

And where death passes its hand, all will be white.

Careful, children. Careful, careful. Careful!

(Coming soon: lagom, jantelagen, and -- what else? -- Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's Magic, You Know. Never Believe It's Not So.

"For those who Believe in God and Universally Accepted Creation, Known or Unknown." So begins the opening sequence of Jadu Tona (1977), and I think that's vague enough for me to agree to. More than that, however, I believe in Good, Old-Fashioned Skeleton Gloves, and the kind of movies that have a picture of the Amityville Horror house on the cover, when there's nothing like it in the movie. This one throws in a pleasant Feroz Khan/Reena Roy romance, an eccentric Ashok Kumar, and a Hanuman-based miracle, thereby making it my second-favorite Hindi film with an Exorcist flavor (although neither this nor top-choice Gehrayee, which I desperately need to re-watch, is any kind of straightforward copy).

Oddly, we are not in Ramsay Brothers Land, but in another equally strange place -- the one belonging to director Ravikant Nagaich, who was soon to bring us the Mithun Chakraborty spy pictures Surraksha and Wardaat. I haven't seen either of those yet, which is obviously another thing I need to remedy ASAP. Let me know if you come across any grants to sit around and watch films, because I need one.

This whole movie is available on YouTube (alas, not subtitled), which means: so are the awesome credits. There's some "Tubular Bells"-like music, along with some hints of Giorgio Moroder, and some multicolored, shadowy hands and skulls. Then we get a montage of images, stock footage, and references to different religions, along with more deep narratorial wisdom: "This cosmos which is seamless is a locked treasure of countless secrets! The truth is not just what we can see. The things which we can't see are also true."

Also, the movie is dedicated to "The Vibrations (Bombay)." I wish I knew why!

Fortunately, this isn't Haxan, so a storyline does kick in: a big-city man brings his two daughters to visit their grandparents in an isolated village. He scoffs at the illiterate, superstitious yokels who tell him to greet the banyan tree. (The young fellow among the villagers is named Billu, which made me wonder if his dad is a barber, but he needed to work as a servant to earn extra money). As they pass, a black cat glares at the family with a wonderful scorn, but since my littlest kitteh gives me that look all the time, I'm not sure I'd have taken it as foreshadowing.

Older sister Varsha (Reena Roy, who's suddenly all over on my radar), is bored, reading a trashy novel, but little Harsha (Baby Pinky) is delighted by the beautiful countryside. She has a sweet song of celebratory dancing in the fields, singing "There is nothing but love here." Not quite true, since the number is intercut with shots of that sinister cat. Eventually she wanders into a ruin and, finding an old man tucked away there, agrees to get his "medicine" for him.

Before you can say "Linda Blair," she's beset by the forces of darkness, but at least they don't skimp on the visuals. This isn't one of those slow-acting possessions that creep up on the characters, but a more dramatic instant possession, with maximum thrashing about.

The villagers try to rush her to the Hanuman temple, but she fights them off, having gained super-demonic strength. She snaps out of it when Grandma gets a talisman from the local Saint (who's delightfully offended when accused of being out for money), and they go back to the city. But whenever the bracelet comes loose, or whenever the little girl gets a cut, she starts freaking out again.

Her case -- possibly a form of epilepsy -- comes to the attention of dashing, manly young psychiatrist Feroz Khan, who's moved by the patient's pretty sister. Besides, it makes a break from dealing with people who think they're Prince Salim. He gives her the usual battery of medical tests, but his bedside manner is so kindly that, for once, they don't seem too disturbing.

Before long, with Harsha's condition no better, the servants don't want to work in a house full of bhoots, and Varsha's engagement gets broken off -- not that she's unhappy about that, since she wasn't too thrilled with the prospective groom even before Dr. FK started making house calls. On his end, Feroz gets an appropriately surrealistic love song, addressed to Varsha's bathroom mirror, about how lucky it is to look at her (including, it's implied, in the bathtub).

When a shady character turns up dead, and the police learn that the little girl on the scene suffers from violent amnesiac fits, the case is handled by Inspector Jolly Goodman (Ashok Kumar). He has a habit of abbreviating everything, but in a way that nobody around him understands. For example, he has to explain that his comment "Nice ID" is a reference to the "interior design." He's sharp, though, and puts everything together pretty quickly. Given the nature of the case, that means he starts trying to prove the existence of the bhoot that's tormenting the girl!

Eventually it becomes clear that the people dying aren't random victims, but are the bad guys who murdered the spirit in the ruin. Jeevan appears in a leapard-print pillbox hat, with moll Aruna Irani, who's totally wasted in such a tiny non-entity of a part. I was waiting and waiting for her to turn up, and when she did, she hardly even got to speak.

Interestingly, Jolly Goodman is established as a Christian, whose belief in evil spirits causes him to encourage the family to get help from that original village Saint, who follows Bajranbali (Hanuman), or "the ducky of Sita," as he's called in a devotional song. It appears that either Christianity or Hinduism is better than the limited point-of-view of the modern scientific approach, which only exacerbated the situation. At least when it comes to things unseen.

Sensitive animal lovers should note that there's a brief, apparently stock-footage shot of two cats hissing and batting at each other. No sign of any animal injuries, but I know people who'd be disturbed by that.

Speaking of felines, though, here's a shot from little Harsha's bedroom. Growing up in central Minnesota in the'70s, I had this exact same cat picture on my wall, when I was about her age.

I did not, however, wander into any ruins and get possessed by an evil spirit. Or did I?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beautiful Songs and Beautiful Women

...in movies I know NOTHING about. Welcome to my perpetual YouTube experience!

In between my lengthier posts (oh yeah, you know they're coming), I've been looking up songs based on the book Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries, by Ashok Da. Ranade. Much of which is over my head when he talks about musical technique, but I love his enthusiastic use of exclamation points!

Today's videos are "Phool Gendwa Na Maro" from 1964's Dooj Ka Chand. I have no idea who these people are -- is that lovely girl Saroja Devi? -- but it's Manna Dey singing, and the music is by Roshan. Ranade describes it as "spoofing on a large scale -- caricaturing almost all ways of singing Hindustani 'classical' music!" (p. 266). The picturization is also quite humorous, and it even includes a snake!

The other is from the same chapter, because I started where I was when I sat down at the computer, so it's also a Roshan song: "Nigahein Milane Ko Jee Chahta" from Dil Hi To Hai (1963). At least I know this is Asha singing, and Nutan in the picturization.

Both these movies are only available on VCD. Nahin! Or maybe, thank God, since YouTube is an inexhaustible source of movies I've never heard of otherwise. If I could find all the DVDs, I might be crushed by a collapsing pile of unwatched DVDs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Personal Update

I've decided that I'm not going to worry one little bit about flooding this year. If we do have major problems, I'm going to assume that Shah Rukh will lead the country to my rescue, just like in My Name is Khan. I think that's a sensible plan.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Let's Break Out the Booze and Have a Ball

In her final film, Raat Aur Din (1967), Nargis suffers from a multiple personality disorder that manifests itself in drinking, dancing, and listening to records late at night. In other words, behaving exactly like I did in my younger days. Unlike some of us, though, she looks absolutely stunning while doing it. Flirty Western decadence certainly suited her, or maybe it's partly those beautiful mid-'60s dresses. Or the fact that I last saw her in Mother India, which was not a role noted for its glamour.

Pratap Varma (Pradeep Kumar) meets quiet, well-mannered, but intriguingly self-sufficient Varuna in the isolated countryside where his car breaks down.

They immediately hit if off, and quickly get married, without even stopping to check their horoscopes. Before long, Varuna is suffering from headaches, and there are strange episodes in the night when she walks, laughs, and -- most scandalous -- turns on the record player and dances wildly. In the morning, she doesn't remember any of these incidents, which nobody really seems to believe.

Her mother-in-law (crabby and cruel even by filmi standards) brings in a spooky-faced psychic to drive the bhoot out of her; Varuna slaps him, then bursts into giggles. I believe that last part is pretty much how I would react to the same situation! After this, the couple moves to Calcutta, and her condition worsens when an older woman at a party tricks her into drinking liquor for the first time. Alcohol makes the straight-laced Varuna bright and lively, and she sings one of the film's many lovely, lovely songs by Shanker-Jaikishan, this one about enjoying the moment.

Before long, she's sneaking out at night to a club, where she meets handsome young Feroz Khan, who's sure he's met her before. Her husband shows up and scenes ensue, but instead of shooting her for cheating, like he wants to, he decides to bring her to a psychiatrist. They discover that Varuna has a second personality, a party girl named Peggy, and neither knows about the existence of the other. In order to cure her, the two men and her doctors need to unravel the mysteries of the past that she won't, or can't, talk about.

As a Decadent Midwestern Woman myself, I thought in the beginning that we were headed for a condemnation of corrupting modern values, what with Peggy's drinking, smoking, and forwardness being the symptoms of her troubled mind. Not to mention the Everly Brothers and "La Bamba" appearing on the soundtrack. I did notice, however, that we get to see a lot of chic people having a good time without the benefit of mental illness, so that gave me hope.

In the end --without giving too much away -- it was quite refreshing that the source of her problems turned out to be much the opposite, and that the desire of people to have fun, occasionally free of social constraints, is shown as perfectly normal. The scene in which Peggy tries to entice one of her doctors (Rock Dancer's Anoop Kumar as a young man!) to take her out somewhere "Where there is music! Where there is dancing! Where there is life!" sure sounds like the cry of someone who grew up in a stifling small town to me.

On a personal note, I love a glitch in the opening moments of the film, where we see a very sophisticated-looking Peggy hailing a cab. When it gets there, she languidly says "Firpo." That would be the Firpo Restaurant and Hotel in Calcutta, thanked in the opening credits. The subtitles, however, tell us this:

But rest assured, it's a classy joint, with nary a disco ball or a proto-Mithun in sight.

His Face is His Enemy

The WTF-ery of Kaho Naa ... Pyaar Hai (2000) is subtler than the other Rakesh Rohan movies I've seen, but the story is still all over the place. There's a nice orphan boy who wants to be a singing star. He meets a pretty rich girl, and they go on a cruise. They get shipwrecked on a desert isle. After they're rescued, her father vows to destroy his life. All her friends plot to help him become a huge pop star, so he can prove himself worthy. This plan actually works, but then he sees his old boss from the car dealership blow away the Police Commissioner in an underground garage. So he gets killed, and his grieving girlfriend goes to New Zealand, where she meets an exact lookalike of her dead lover, who falls in love with her at first sight.

Scene for scene, a person could mistake this for a normal movie (something unsayable about Koyla or Khoon Bhari Maang). But when it's all put together, it's still pretty insane. And of course, I have now finally seen Hrithik flex his muscles in that black mesh shirt, snippets of which I've seen in a million ad montages since my obsession with Hindi films began. Not that it was particularly life-changing -- for me, anyway. If I hadn't known, I wouldn't have guessed it was history in the making. But that's the way these things sometimes go...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Behind the Music: The Stars of Rock Dancer

Or, Who the Hell Are These People?

After an afternoon of extensive research, I am relatively confident that I have identified most of who played whom in Rock Dancer. At least one of them made me go "duh!" The names are listed as they appear in the movie's credits, and in that order.

Kamal Sadanah. Played Rocky. His father was director Brij Sadanah (of Oonche Log fame -- and his Kathputli is near the top of my Netflix queue), who apparently went on a drunken rampage on Kamal's 20th birthday, killing Kamal's mother, sister, and himself. He also shot Kamal and a visiting friend, who both survived. Shocking! There's a story here, but mind the pop-ups.

Ritu Shivpuri. Played Ritu. One of the few people in this film identified on the IMDB. She debuted in a Govinda/David Dhawan movie, so maybe that explains his presence. I found a where-are-they-now piece on her, but again, beware the pop-ups. Darn Times of India site. Not much detail, but loved the bit about her alleged romance with Kamal Sadanah! They don't say if it was on the set of Rock Dancer, sadly.

Ronit Roy. Played Rakesh. Not only was he recently in Luck By Chance, but got a "Special Thanks" in the credits. I don't know why.

Shammi Kapoor. Played a Dance Master, who was really an undercover cop. He should need no explanation.

Sharon Prabhakar. She must have been Jaya, although the pictures aren't helping me. She was a playback singer who appeared in a few films.

Javed Jafri. (Better known as Jaffrey). Played J.J. Of course the name was familiar -- he's the crazy Crocodile Dundee guy in Salaam Namaste. Among tons of other things. I hadn't realized before that he's the son of Jagdeep. Squee! I thought he was quite dreamy. Javed, that is ... but then, I've really only seen Jagdeep in crazy get-ups, so who knows?

Anoop Kumar. Played, I'm pretty sure, the old dude who runs the hotel, and turns out to be one of the undercover cops. There are two Anoop Kumars, one a Bengali actor, and the other the brother of Ashok and Kishore. I'm going with the latter.

Jhony Lever. Or Johnny, as we know him. Played a cop.

"Introducing Bappa Lahiri." Son of Bappi, now a music director in his right, although I haven't heard any of his work. He'd have been only about twelve or thirteen when Rock Dancer was released, so all I can think is that he was the weird, inexplicable Michael Jackson impersonator in "Traffic Jam":

I know what I'm asking Bappi if I ever get a chance!

Pental. (Also seen credited as Paintal). Another thankfully familiar face. Played a cop.

Late Jalal Agha. Played the Elvis dude, who was really an undercover cop. Among many, many other roles, he was, as noted in Rock Dancer, the banjo player in Sholay.

Sudhir. I have been unable to find anything out about him yet, but I'm guessing he played Jaya and Ritu's father, since nobody else fits the bill.

Baby Gazala. Played Jaya and Raj's daughter Pinky. If you put her into Google, there are a million hits, but none seem to have any information -- like maybe her real name?

Mac Mohan. Played the lawyer, Advocate Mehra. Well, we should all know him. Here's a chat with The Hindu online. I agree it was a tragedy that he didn't get more diverse roles, although I appreciate the ones we got.

Sevanand. A.K.A.'ed on the IMDB as Shivanand. I have no idea who he played.

Ahmed. Well, I'm not crazy enough to try to find someone just based on the name "Ahmed."

G.P. Singh. Sadly, no idea on him either.

"And Deb Mukerji." Played Raj. He's Kajol's uncle. Of course. He was recently in Kaminey, which almost, but not quite, makes me want to see it.

"Special Appearance Govinda." Well, he played Govinda, so that was easy enough.

"International Star Samanta Fox." For those of you who missed the '80s, she was a topless British "Page 3" girl who became a pop star with songs like "Touch Me (I Wanna Feel Your Body)" -- the only one I can actually remember. If you're curious about her, watch your step when doing research at the public library: there was an adult film actress with the same name. According to that unimpeachable source, the Wikipedia, The Daily Star voted her "Best Page 3 Pin-Up Ever" in 2008.

A standing ovation, please!

This Is, In Fact, My Chicken Fry

There's a famous story about the P.J. Soles/Ramones comedy Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979). According to producer Roger Corman, he originally commissioned a film to cash in on the current disco craze, so the original title concept was Disco High. However, director Allan Arkush convinced him that if he wanted it to be "hip," it had to be rock-n-roll.

Most of my life, I would have agreed with that assessment. But now, with all the delight that Hindi disco films have brought to my life, I realize what a lost opportunity that was. Not that I'd change a shaggy hair on Rock 'n' Roll High School's perfect head: I just wish we could have had both! Preferably with the same irreverent attitude -- and Mithun Chakraborty as the new principal who's going to raise everyone's grades with the power of disco.

In the late 1970's United States, the superiority of rock to disco was self-evident. In India in the '90s, however, rock music is just a wannabe, a pretender to the power of disco. Or at least that's the impression one gets from 1995's Rock Dancer, which attempts to recapture the magic that was Disco Dancer -- down to opening credits that shamelessly mimic the earlier movie's title tune, spelling out what all the letters stand for. "O" is even still "se Orchestra," although I do have to laugh that the last "R" in "Rock Dancer" stands for "Rock," making the whole thing an exercise in tautology. (And take that, Amazon, with your "statistically improbable phrases").

Just so you know: this introduction to the "Rock Dancer" concept takes place over a scene of fashion models on a catwalk -- which has nothing to do with anything else.

Fortunately, we've all been able to brace ourselves, since the movie starts with the equivalent of a warning label that this is not for the faint of heart: "Bappi Lahiri Presents."


I have often pondered the distinction between "so bad it's good" and "so bad it's bad." Much bad art is just plain bad, and only worth ignoring. Some bad art, however, actually contains entertainment value within its very badness. Some reaches a pinnacle of backwards genius: the point at which the pleasure of it is directly proportionate to its badness. The problem is that this spectrum is completely individual, thus hard to share (and even harder to justify). For me, the movie that most clearly exemplifies this principle is the American musical The Apple, which by any objective standard is one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen, but which makes me roll with joyous, carefree laughter. That's a movie that isn't fun in spite of its badness, but totally because of it.

Which makes me consider that Rock Dancer may actually beat Disco Dancer at its own game! Because Disco is actually a much better movie (whoa, ponder that concept...), albeit geared to a Bad-Movie Taste, Rock might actually be a better Bad Movie. Oh, my head.

The reason I rushed to acquire Rock Dancer is because, on its soundtrack, Bappi reaches a pinnacle of bad-is-goodness with the instant classic "You are My Chicken Fry," which has become a Number One hit inside my head.

There is some controversy here, since the YouTube clip where I first heard it contains the lyrics "You are my chicken fry/You are my fish fry." In the movie, however, the young lovers sing it as "I love my chicken fry/I love my fish fry." I don't know if this is a case where it was changed slightly on the soundtrack release (and I'm assuming there was one, like that Haathkadi movie I cannot find anywhere, although the vinyl LP, featuring NPR favorite Asha Bhosle's "Disco Station," is all over eBay). I think "You are my chicken fry" is funnier, so that's the way I continue to sing it to my husband and my long-suffering cats.

You can compare the two clips: this is "Kabhi Na Kudiye Bye Bye Bye" as seen in the movie. And really, you should watch it, even if you ignore the rest of this post. It's a worth-a-thousand-words type situation. (The big guy in the black leather jacket is a cameo by Jalal Agha, but more on that later). The visuals in the "You Are My Chicken Fry" version are the maker's own music video. Rock Dancer is pretty random in some respects, but it does not contain a cameo by the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Although if it did, it wouldn't be any stranger than the appearance by "International Star" Samantha Fox, which the credits also warn us about. Just so that, during the film's attempts at being a thriller, we can ponder the real mystery: how on earth are they going to fit Samantha Fox into this?

Despite a few spots of real lameness (the "Rock Around the Clock" number, oy!), this is my favorite Bappi Lahiri soundtrack. So far. It's so over the top -- with lyrics that are ridiculous to the point of genius, if such a thing is possible -- that it really almost seems like it's done on purpose, being stupid for comic effect. Much the way that the "Aaja baby love me" lyrics in "Love Mere Hit Hit" never stop amusing me.

We'll be delving into the credits more later, since the IMDB only identifies a few characters, and while watching the movie, I had no idea who most of these people were. Thank goodness for the reassuring presence of Shammi Kapoor. I will note up front that the choreography was done by one S. Ganeshan, just so we know who to blame. (There was some speculation in my house that this might be the "Alan Smithee" of the choreography world). Also, the film was directed "By Menon." If you watched TV in the US in the '80s, this might bring something, Pavlov-like, to your inner ear. (See randomly-chosen clip here: you only need to sit through the second commercial to hear it, but feel free to enjoy the other ads, including ones for the Bush-Quayle campaign -- wow, does that seem like a million years ago).

Anyway, there's a lot of players to keep track of here -- a very complex human drama is about to unfold -- so let's tally them up.

Jaya is a hugely popular Rock Dancer. We suspect she's the person who put Rock Dancing on the map. It's such a part of her identity that, when a killer has broken into her house and she calls the police (well, after calling her sister, and then waiting around for a while), she announces "I am Rock Dancer Jaya speaking."

Raj Malhotra (yes!) is her husband. He's a good-for-nothing gambler and ne'er-do-well that her father never approved of. Also, he has a mullet. He torments Jaya with his continual demands for cash, and there's a lot of talk about him squandering her wealth. But since she claimed in an interview that she doesn't take money for her Rock Dancing -- it's all for charity -- I'm not sure where her money is coming from. All the the self-sacrificing Rock Dancers seem to live in pretty high style. Be that as it may, I found Raj perversely attractive, in an Irfan-Khan-in-Dhund: The Fog kind of greasy villainous way.

Ritu is Jaya's younger sister. She doesn't care for show biz, and has no interest in becoming a Rock Dancer. No interest whatsoever. Seriously, quit asking her! When she gives in, though, she attains Jaya's skills and success in less than the time it takes to do a full training montage song.

The other Rock Dancers are:

Rakesh. Boyishly handsome, he obviously has quite a thing for Ritu. While he's good enough for a dance partner, Jaya doesn't trust his intentions, for no reason that's ever made clear.

J.J. The best-looking in the bunch (despite an unfortunate beret-n-headband look on display below), he's also blessed with a resonant, dramatic voice. Like the other guys in the cast, he's occasionally given close-ups with ominous shadows and musical chords, to keep us in the maximum suspense about the identity of the villain.

J.J. says "Stand and deliver!"

Extra Love Interest:

Rocky. A floppy-haired, kinda dopey romantic who's Ritu's Number One Fan. Just like in Chandni, she is impressed rather than creeped out by the photos of her all over his room. Rocky conveniently works in the hotel where she stays on tour, so he's always on hand to rescue her from the rioting fans that follow her everywhere (Rock Dancing brings out a rowdy crowd!), even if means jumping off a roof to do it.

Any of the guys mentioned may or may not be the Sinister Black-Gloved Man, right out of a Dario Argento movie, who plots in a dark room while screams play on the soundtrack behind him. At first, I thought there was actually a person in the background screaming, Silence of the Lambs-like, but then I realized that the screams just follow him around.

There are also some fumbling cops, but they're played by Johnny Lever and Paintal, so we know who they are and what they're doing.

Our real introduction to whatever Jaya and her friends do for a non-living as "Rock Dancers" comes in the song "Dil Bole Koi Aye Aye. Fortunately, it involves shiny fringed tops and anklets, and makes me think maybe I should revisit Flashdance, in which I would probably discover a whole new dimension. Two things to notice about this song: it's yet another Bappi reprisal of the "Billie Jean" tune. And when the woman sings "I am alone ... Will he console my heart?" in a duet, the man calls back "Why not?" (in English). Why not? That's the most feeling he can summon? My god, it's true: they really don't make romantic lyrics like they used to.

When Jaya is shot at the end of the number by the Sinister Black-Gloved Man, my snap thought was, "It wasn't that bad." Tragically, her leg gets amputated, and the troupe fears they will be unable to fulfill a contract that would help them build a cancer hospital for children. I bet that's the same story they used to lure the cast into doing this film. To help them with this completely unselfish dream, Ritu finally agrees to learn to dance. After all, as J.J. tells her, "I know that art is hidden within you, that can illuminate and spread in the world."

Yes, with this result: "Zindagi Dance Hai."

All the screenshots that include the phrase "Rock Dancer" or some variation thereof are from different songs. It's like they thought if they kept saying "Rock Dancer" over and over, it would eventually catch on.

When Jaya finally refuses Raj's requests for more lakhs of rupees ("I am trapped in a strange dilemma," he tells her, implying that lives are in danger, but never bothering to ever TELL HER what the heck is going on), it suddenly becomes a Ramsay Brothers film already in progress. Doors fly open, the soundtrack fills with screams, and Jaya dies before she can tell Ritu who stabbed her and threw her into the pool. Since Johnny Lever and Paintal are the police officers we meet here, I don't hold out much hope that the killer will be brought to justice.

But we have other fish to fry. (Sorry). If we're going to get that cancer hospital built, we're going to need some more Rock Dancing. So in between red herrings, there's "Launda Badnaam Hua," with Ritu in shimmery red, J.J. in the aforementioned sporty beret-n-headband, and Rakesh in the yellow pants. There's a song with a Caribbean feel and prominent lyrics like "Ah-la-la-la-la/Ah-la-la-la-la" and "Then I went bonkers." We have to endure the "Rock Around the Clock" song. And then Shammi finally appears, for the "You Are My Sajna" song (imagine walking around all day with "You're my deewana, I'm your deewani" in your head). That one also includes a chorus, "Let's sing together/Let's dance together" that's roughly to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine."
Yes, there is a giant book behind Shammi's head. It appears that some sort of parade is going on? With floats? That all say "Kingfisher" on the side?

I wouldn't turn up my nose at a little insight, but at least Shammi is around to remind us what a better class of heroes we used to get. His presence inspires the first of two Arsenic and Old Lace gags, this one in which Johnny Lever thinks dance teacher Shammi is in fact Shammi Kapoor. After the "Chicken Fry" song, he'll talk to the leather-clad, Elvis looking Jalal Agha about his singing the "Mehbooba" song in Sholay. But they're not playing themselves, which gets kind of confusing once Govinda and Samantha Fox eventually show up, and they are playing themselves.

After Ritu is almost strangled by a white muffler, suspicion falls on dandy Rakesh. When he proves that he still has his muffler, he soulfully tells her, "Remember one thing in life. Friends save the lives of their friends. Not kill them." I don't know if I can remember that or not, but I'll try.

In the end, there's a kidnapped child, a huge melee, and the revelation that almost everyone is an undercover cop. Govinda also does some undercover work in his spare time.


Unfortunately for all the future kidnapped children and menaced Rock Dancers, his cover has now been blown.

Most importantly, we get "Traffic Jam," with Samantha Fox wearing her characteristic lingerie, and Govinda failing to channel LL Cool J. The song is a rambling narrative explaining his mishaps on the streets of Mumbai, with the chorus "I am sorry, sorry, madam, I am late because of traffic jam!" I'm told this is a rip-off of a Michael Jackson song called "Jam," but I don't know that one. At least it's a change from "Billie Jean." And I love the background "Traffic Jam!" echo.

The popular fusion of showbiz story with crime drama is a strange thing which, again, I can only trace back to the long arm of Karz. If anyone knows an earlier example that fits the template, please comment! It makes me imagine someone saying, "Hey, you know what would improve Dil To Pagal Hai? If there were some drug dealers, or maybe a dissipated thakur, trying to kill the dance troupe!" And someone else saying, "No, for once, let's try it without that." It's like it's not enough just to enjoy the dance beat -- the fluffiest of escapism has to be turned into a matter of life and death.

But frankly, nobody would care about the so-called mystery without the Rock Dancing. So who am I kidding: I've not only become openly fond of Bappi Lahiri, but will be on the look-out for more films "by Menon," and more classic choreography from S. Ganeshan, whoever s/he was.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Immortal Villainy of Amrish Puri

Remember I was talking about how Amrish Puri never won the Filmfare Award for Best Villain? When called upon to make a short video to edit together for a community ed class, only one subject came to mind: paying tribute to Amrish's evil (fictional) ways.

Here it is: Me on YouTube. God help us all.

Obviously, there are three things I plan to change in editing: the shuffling needs to be shortened, the part where I look at the camera (gah!) needs to be removed, and it needs to end with a close-up of Amrish Triumphant. Maybe zoomed in three times. However, I didn't get the lighting right for the last part, so the footage I had on hand didn't work, and as for the first two problems -- well, I'd been editing for three hours on a completely new, non-intuitive computer program, so I'd had it! But I just had to share my glee that it turned out even this well, and I'll let you know when a better version is available.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Vintage Bhoots


I have to give super-kudos to Memsaab for bringing 1966's Bhoot Bungla to my attention, and covering everything we really need to know here, including the presence of R.D. Burman as a comic sidekick, and the great Ted Lyons as a bad-boy gang leader.

What we have in Bhoot Bungla is a classic mid-sixties Old Dark House comedy, which looks and feels completely contemporaneous with Hollywood productions like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (which Filmi Girl just blogged about here --yay!), both also released in 1966. Only with the addition of good music -- Burman wasn't just there to cower in the face of dancing skeletons, after all -- and even a little social commentary for the kids. The spooky ambience is handled very well by Mehmood, who also gives the most restrained performance I've seen from him so far. Since he directed, and gets a story credit, I've had to consider the possibility that his annoying comic performances might be a matter of giving people what they wanted.

I've been taking a class in basic video production, and I have to say, even rudimentary background about filmmaking gives me more appreciation for the effects that were done in earlier films, with the technology available at the time. The phrase "they did it with mirrors" is clearly applicable in this film, but knowing that doesn't make the wizardry any less impressive to me.
The famous Victorian stage illusion "Pepper's Ghost" was also done with mirrors, but that fact doesn't dismiss the effectiveness of the effect. Similarly, Mehmood didn't have access to anything like our easy-to-use digital technology, and he'd never even directed a film before, so I really have to give him credit for those dancing skeletons, and the overall air of suspense.

Since I also have a fascination with urban architecture in films (I could watch The Warriors just for the shots of subway trains and run-down tenements, so luckily the movie also has other virtues), I also appreciated the visuals in the poignant song “Jago Sonewaalon Suno." There's a great shot where the camera makes a 360-degree turn, from Mehmood to Mehmood, around the empty fronts of high-rise buildings. It's clearly on a soundstage, but it still looks great.

If you go looking for this -- which you should, or what's wrong with you? -- be aware that Nehaflix lists it under the title Bhoot Bangla.