Sunday, February 28, 2010

Just like the decade...

...all good things must come to an end on a giant record player. Wait, isn't that the way the saying goes? Well, it should!

Earlier in the week, I talked about 1980's Karz, and specifically the "Om Shanti Om" number, in the context of Rishi's ability to turn on the sunshine. In the Kapoor biography by Madhu Jain (problematic in many ways, but we'll take whatever reference materials we can get), Rishi is shown as a fairly complex personality: moodier, touchier, less friendly and outgoing than the other Kapoors. Unlike his screen persona, he claims to be completely unromantic in real life. As far as acting is concerned, it sounds like he went into the family business by default: "I didn't make a great effort. I just did what I was told. My father used to show me what to do and I did it." (The Kapoors, page 294) Although I think that's a serious underestimating, it does say something about how he's viewed his career.

Sometimes, too, I ponder the fact that Bobby features a character in rebellion against his cold, apparently unloving father -- with the actor directed by his real-life father.

In Karz, his Monty is an orphan who's been "adopted" by a rich man, even given his surname, but it's really all a sham to exploit Monty's singing talent, when all Monty really wants is love, and a family. "Don't call me Daddy!" the old man keeps snapping. Hmmm.

Still, whatever went on in his life, when he's called upon, he can come across on screen like the happiest person in the world. When Rishi was performing, he was able to convey something very different than the way his reality is described -- taking it, of course, with a grain of "who knows what the truth is, and it isn't my business." Because I'm watching a movie; it was his job to entertain me in that movie; and no matter how silly the premise, how flimsy the story, he gave it everything he had.

Which has an interesting resonance in just how often in those movies Rishi is actually playing a performer: a musician in a band, a drummer at the temple, a singer of qawwalis or of modern pop songs. Inside of the movies, Rishi was always on stage, an entertainer literally playing an entertainer.

One thing I need to point out here: the ability to lip synch is a skill that tends to be underappreciated, because when it's done well, there's a flawless illusion that the actor is singing. In that case, it obviously isn't noticed. Rishi lip synchs with technical accuracy, but also in a way that seems really natural. Most importantly, he does it with conviction. When I think of actors using the song picturizations and playback singers to really convey emotion, thus creating emotional identification in the audience, he and Shah Rukh Khan are the two who leap to my mind. Both of them are primarily performers, entertainers, rather than actors -- which is not to say they aren't good actors. It's to say that, in my mind, they're more than actors.

So it seems appropriate that the first time I ever saw Shah Rukh was when he metamorphed into Rishi's Karz performance in the opening of Om Shanti Om. My fate as a Bollywood fan was pretty much sealed on the spot.

The story of Karz: rich man maries pretty girl. She kills him for his money. His mother stands up to Kali and demands that her son return home to her, as he promised, so he is reborn in the body of Monty: singer, guitarist, violinist, trumpet player, and incurable romantic. Which reminds me, the other day I mentioned how in Hindi films, even the trumpet can be played for good, as Rishi does here and in Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, or for evil, as Amrish Puri does in Dance Dance. Too bad they never faced off in a trumpet competition: it could have been like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," with bulging cheeks.

At any rate, just like SRK will in Om Shanti Om, Monty begins to have flashbacks to his past life, tracks down his old family and, most importantly, the old villains who plotted his previous death. Only he takes more time to woo the pretty girls with his violin (and no, that's not a double entendre).

Many people talk about how this movie is a rip-off of the American flash-in-the-pan The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (I remember 1975, when everyone was talking about it, but it's largely forgotten today, and has never been released on DVD). Other people point out that Hindi movies like Madhumati predated that, and besides, where did the idea of reincarnation come from in the first place, hmm?

The pre-reincarnated version of Monty is pretty good-looking, which I hadn't remembered from my first viewing: so blinded was I by the sequins, apparently. He's played by Raj Kiran, who's in Star (which I own, but haven't gotten to yet). There's also a movie called Ghar Ek Mandir, in which he and Mithun play Shashi Kapoor's brothers. Calling Netflix! Somehow, when Shashi and Mithun are in the same movie, it's like worlds colliding. Matter and anti-matter? It seems so wrong, but somehow the idea draws me into its vortex.

Speaking of Mithun, I always think Karz sort of accidentally set the stage for his career. The much-maligned music is Laxmikant Pyaralel's attempt to mimic contemporary "pop." Personally, I love the music, but we've well established that I have what can be charitably called "camp taste." Once you have the "Om Shanti Om" song, with Kishore Kumar's soulful vocals layered on top of a disco "wacka wacka" rhythm, we're alreay on the road that will lead to the evergreen tunes of the Disco Dancer soundtrack. The basic template of "stage performer seeks revenge" with aggressively "trendy" songs (heavily showcasing whatever electronic effects happened to become available, or with picturizations that increasingly borrow from American pop culture) really kicks off here. These elements were already around, of course, but Karz strikes me as an archetypal film, where it all came together, for better or worse.

As for Rishi, Karz is really the swan song of his career in young love. After this, he did credible romantic performances in Yeh Vaada Raha (1982), Nagina (1986), and Chandni (1989), but by then, they'd put him in the sweaters full time, and he'd never really be able to pull off the kind of callowness he still has in Karz. Some movies, as in the first half of Deewana (1992), still attempt to put him in the role of frolicking innocent, but it doesn't come off well, and that's a movie where he no longer seems to be having any fun at all. And, well, there's the snaky Sheshnaag (1990), but in that he's more a holy fool type than a romantic lead.

Disclaimer: this is all keeping in mind that there a zillion films we're dealing with, and I've only seen a fraction of them, proportionately speaking, so I am in fact making a sweeping generalization prone to revision at any time.

One last thing: I knew I wanted some illustrations from the "Om Shanti Om" number, partly because it's such one of Rishi's famous moments, but mainly because of my personal associations. Before seeing the Karz clip in Om Shanti Om, I had no idea of all the awesomeness waiting for me out there in world. (Then, of course, "Dard-e-Disco" came along and did me in completely). At the same time, this song could be a very easy thing to make fun of, and I certainly didn't want to do that, even unintentionally. I'm not making fun of Rishi here. Not at all! I love him sincerely, in all his glittery glory.

It's sad to see the end of my self-imposed Rishi Week, although I know there'll be more in the future, what with him being my ishta devata and all. Until then, remember, "Om Shanti Ommmmmmmmm -- HA!"

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Everyone contributed to making me"

Thanks to '70s Week, I finally got around to finding a clip of Rishi getting the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

I hadn't realized it was Ranbir (or Rocket "Crazy Legs" Singh, as he's known around here) who presented it to his dad...sniff. The standing ovation makes me a little teary-eyed, especially considering how proud Neetu looks of him. Then Dimple calls Neetu on stage, and Rishi thanks her at length: "Most of this actually belongs to you." Double sniff.

I'm not sure why people are accompanied by the Indiana Jones theme, though. At first I thought it was somehow for Ranbir's benefit, but Dimple gets it too. I know I've heard some musical cues at the Oscars that are almost as nonsensical, so I'll keep my ears peeled this year, just to give equal critique.

I also rustled around and came up with an address:
Rishi Kapoor
27 Krishna Raj, Pali Hill
Bandra, Mumbai 400 050

But what would I say? I haven't written a fan letter since Junior High. Although I did actually get back a lovely signed photo of Carrie Fisher. So, nothing ventured?

Feels Like the First Time

As we near the end of Rishi Kapoor Week, a few tidbits: here's a song from Rishi and Neetu's auspicious first film together (Zahreela Insaan, 1974). Who knew to what it would lead?

Unfortunately, their first few movies together are "out of stock" on Nehaflix, including this one and Khel Khel Mein, which has crazy Rakesh Rohan as a prankster friend who gets them involved with criminals, so I'm obviously desperate to see it. I must not be the only one doing research on the early years.

I did order a copy of Zahreela Insaan, hoping it might make it to my door in time for '70s week, and it arrived last night. The description reads in part: "Arjun was like the King Cobra, deadly when someone stepped upon him and aroused him." That sounds pretty tough, considering that on the cover, a fluffy-haired Rishi has a definite resemblance to that middle boy on The Brady Bunch. Unfortunately, while the DVD menu has normal coloration, the film itself is entirely tinted green! Somehow, I don't think that was an artistic choice based on the vaguely snaky theme.

So now, instead of griping, I'm grateful that the YouTube clip is as high-quality as it is. Since Rishi doesn't sing in this number, it makes him seem like the sex object of the piece. But he is pretty cute with that mustache -- if overshadowed by the truly amazing earrings Neetu is wearing. I'm not sure there's a man alive who can compete with those earrings.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Double Your Kapoors, Double Your Angst

"The problem with you intellectuals is that you look for answers in books. So far removed from life!"
-- the wisdom of Flashback Shashi in Doosra Aadmi (1977)

Of course, it's not always shiny and happy in the films of Rishi Kapoor. But after all the melodramatic parental disapproval of Bobby, it is a nice change to see the more everyday concerns of the parents in Doosra Aadmi (alternately Doosara Aadmi, as my copy transliterated it), who argue that the couple are young, don't know each other well, and don't yet appreciate the seriousness of marriage. They ask them to wait, get to know each other better, and then, if they still want to get married, the parents will throw them a big wedding. It's like the earnest advice in a '50 mental hygiene film.

Lovers Karan (Rishi Kapoor) and Timsi (Neetu Singh), however, don't want to wait, so they go to the courthouse, and then it's off to the honeymoon, where Rishi tries to buy condoms without telling the druggist what he wants. I can't be the only one thinking of the famous scene in Fawlty Towers, when the guest unwitting asks if the chemist's is still open. ("I know what people like you get up to, and I think it's disgusting!")

When Karan insists on making his own way in business, further alienating his wealthy father, he becomes determined to hire a woman named Nisha, known as a reclusive genius, as a way to set his new ad agency apart. She turns out to be the glamorous, chain-smoking Rakhee Gulzar, who quickly agrees to the job, much to his surprise.

Before long, they're working late together, and Neetu, charming as the young newlywed who still calls her husband "my boyfriend," starts to feel neglected. Rakhee is nicely enigmatic, getting overly familiar with Karan, but subtly enough that it doesn't seem like alarm bells should be going off. Eventually we discover her ulterior motive: Rishi reminds her of her lost love, his real-life uncle Shashi Kapoor. And Rishi quickly proves his (screen) father right: maybe he was too young and immature to make a life-long commitment, since he clearly likes the attention. I don't care if there's literal infidelity or not, when your husband starts doing romantic song sequences with someone else -- it's cheating.

A few things to mention: usually the presence of dual Kapoors means good times, as in the superlative Duniya Meri Jeb Mein, which I won't bother to blog about, since the ultimate post on the subject has already been written here. Sadly, because of the whole flashback situation, they don't get to act together.

Also, as someone who recently absorbed two seasons of Mad Men in about a week, it interested me how Rishi's character comes to realize how much of a hollow man he is ("I have no identity of my own.") His earlier rebellion, and his ambition to prove himself in business, hasn't stopped him from letting himself be led by circumstances, and trying to be what other people want him to be. He'd fit right in at Sterling Cooper; maybe it's an occupational hazard in the world of advertising.

Costumes, by the way, are partly credited to "Jennifer Kapoor." I like to think she's responsible for Rakhee's outfits, which have busy '70s patterns, but still manage to look lovely. Rather than anything that might be seen at the hilarious Ugly, Ugly, Bollywood Fugly site.

And here's a little motto for the online Shashi Club:

No Less Than Anybody Else

As Anirpan pointed out in the comments a couple days ago, within a few years of his uber-nerdy film debut in Bobby, Rishi would be playing "coolness personified" in films like Hum Kisise Kum Nahin and Amar Akbar Anthony (and I'd add Rafoo Chakkar to the list) -- a peculiar turn of events indeed. His Akbar is probably the best starting point for understanding the mystery of his appeal: the point where many doubters go, "Okay, I get it." But he's not cool in the Cary Grant mode that his father could switch on; it's more like a hipster cool (for lack of a better phrase). An uninhibited, I-don't-care-what-anybody-thinks cool, kind of like a young Bill Murray cool, only cuddlier, and less in-your-face.
The plotline of 1977's Hum Kisise Kum Nahin is almost too complicated to bother with: it's mainly an excuse for some chases, a few fun scenes, and a bunch of great songs. There's a second hero (Tariq) who's in the earnest leading man mode, and he's okay, but luckily Rishi is there to steal the whole movie.

So cool! And that's while he's wearing a freakin' bow tie!

Since he doesn't have the matinee idol looks (except for Laila Majnu, and thank goodness there were cameras around to document the peak flourishing of his manly beauty!), in many of his better films Rishi tends to play a charismatic guy-next-door type who proves himself a hero, partly through conventional heroics (fisticuffs, rescues, etc.), but largely by standing up and doing his thing. His characters are usually creative -- singers, dancers -- and they don't care if their costumes are ridiculous as long as everybody's having fun. For example, I'm not sure I've ever seen a male actor (as opposed to an actual drag performer) look less self-conscious in a showgirl costume than he did in the marvelous Some Like It Hot-esque Rafoo Chakkar. Similarly, in HKKN, like in Duniya Mera Jeb Mein, he plays a character who started well-off (or thinking he was, in the latter case). When suddenly brought low by circumstances, he may not be happy about the situation, but it doesn't fundamentally change who he is or how he thinks about himself.

The kind of cool that's internally driven, rather than depending on how you're seen by the world, seems like a much more "modern" kind of cool. (It sounds absurd to say there's a "traditional" kind of cool, but I think there is). Instead of fitting into a style, it's making your own style.

I'm with you!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Super Tailor: the name says it all

Amar Akbar Anthony is one of the defining films of the 1970s -- maybe one of the defining films of my entire life! Much has been said, and there's even a book on director Manmohan Desai (Enchantment of the Mind) that covers it in some detail.

Along with Don, I'd say this movie is one of the better introductions to Masalaland (Masa La-La Land?) -- not too violent, not too ridiculous. In fact, I'd say it's just ridiculous enough. But I'm not here to sing the praises of blind mothers, long-lost brothers, and Johnny Walker Black, even though they're all super-awesome. I'm here to talk about what's really important in life -- sheer shirts and other fashion statements!

My original idea for Rishi Kapoor paper dolls involved the colorful sweaters of Chandni, which would be delightful to reproduce in paper form, but the outfits of AAA would make an even better start. The plot may hinge on his character, Akbar, being raised by a Muslim, but I think it's far more significant that he's raised by a tailor. Because look how stylish he is!

Onstage, in green:

Lurking, in a fabulous floral print:

Sheer shirt, in casual sightseeing white:

And its counterpart, in red. Maybe from the same department store?

The devotional look is subtle, but still, I love the rose-patterned cap:

And my favorite:

Let's get a better look at that fabric:

Yum City! I would so wear this shirt.

Since I don't know who specifically was responsible for Akbar's particular look, and who was dressing the heroines, all hail to the wardrobe staff of Amar Akbar Anthony: Mani Rabadi, Leena Daru, Kachin, and Super Tailor.

In the '70s alone, top-billed Mani Rabadi worked on films like Bobby, Jangal Mein Mangal, Geeta Mera Naam, Rafoo Chakkar (squee!), the 1976 Nagin, Dharam Veer, and Don. Earlier she did "Dress Design" for the Shammi/Sharmila An Evening in Paris, and in the '80s even went on to my beloved 3-D Saamri, aka Purana Mandir 2. That's a really special "All hail!"

Leena Daru also worked on Dharam Veer, along with other movies like Seeta Aur Geeta, and later was the Costume Designer for Chandni and Deewana. I wonder how much she's to blame for picking out Rishi's sweaters?

Kachin, like Super Tailor, appears to be a company, with a huge list of credits from Sholay all the way to -- Khoon Bhari Maang. Mwa ha ha! We'll never stop running out of examples for "from the Sublime to the Ridiculous." Super Tailor did costumes for the clothing-centric Hum Kisise Kum Nahin, the largely clothing-optional Satyam Shivam Sundaram, and even -- my beloved Disco Dancer! It just gets better and better.

There's also a credit for "Dress" to the Late Narayan Rao. I don't know what distinguishes "Dress" from "Wardrobe," but it's appreciated anyway, especially since his short list of credits includes International Crook. He definitely deserves marigolds around his picture.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Love in Miniskirts

Bobby (1973)

Fair warning: if I had to pick one favorite soundtrack from the '70s, it would be Laxmikant Pyarelal's soundtrack for Bobby. I can't even begin to pick a favorite song, so I'll cover them as we go...

The film's generation gap theme is laid out almost immediately. Raj (played by Rishi, obviously), sent off for misbehavior to boarding school (where the headmaster ironically exhorts them to be their own men), gets called a "Mama's Boy" within the first five minutes! He's turned into an obedient son, but he has a Hair poster over his desk! Sorry, I'll try to keep those exclamation points in check, but it won't be easy. Anyway, the sense is that the young have been let down and abandoned by their parents, so their obedience to them is misplaced, and they need to make their own way in life.

When Raj retuns home, his first song, "Main Shair To Nahin" ("I'm not a poet") has him performing a poem in front of an audience, an idea we'll get to see more of later in his career. It's a lushly orchestrated ballad, sung by Shailender Singh in a simple, straightforward style -- the artistry of artlessness.

Raj and Bobby (the lovely Dimple Kapadia) meet, and once they decide they like each other -- once the hugging starts -- we get "Mujhe Kuch Kahna Hai" (the catchy and adorable "You first"/"You first" song), and I realize: this is the teen romance I wish I'd had! A lot of people think the relationship in Bobby is too lightweight, too much puppy love, but I think it's well-handled. They've never had such strong feelings before, so it's very momentous to them, but because it's new doesn't mean it isn't real.

The misunderstandings that occur when Raju takes Bobby to a party full of "Richie-Riches" are straight out of a John Hughes movie, but fortunately, it gives him an excuse to first enact broken-heartedness, which he does very well, and then to follow her to Kashmir to prove his love -- which is, again, exactly what you want your first love to do! Some guys don't even want to return your phone calls, for pete's sake. There's no question about whether Raju is that into her or not, what with him traveling all that way on top of a bus. Perhaps most importantly, it's a pretext to hear the beautiful, Sufi-flavored "Beshak Mandir Masjid" song by the fire, which I've always thought really elevates the teenage quarrel to a higher level of emotion.

At this point, I noticed how many of these songs have the common theme of speech and communication. The first song is about how he's not a poet, but can't help expressing his feelings. The next song is also about how they're afraid to tell each other the truth, but can't bear to keep silence. The third is about suffering in silence, with the refrain (ironically spoken) about how the singer won't say a word. Sorry, no conclusions about that yet -- I'll just need to watch it again.

Eventually, circumstances accidentally get the young couple locked in a house together for three hours, leading to "Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein Band Ho," with its all-time classic "They Totally Did It" picturization. As the couple embraces on the bed, the scene cuts to various places -- lost in a dark threatening wood; then confronting a tiger, who is tamed by Bobby's willingness to be devoured; and an energetic horse-riding scene, which includes some lyrics about how their innocent frolicking could end in tears: "Who knows what will happen tomorrow/That's worrying me a bit/Think, what if something happens?" What could they mean?

But when the door opens, they stride out confidently, arm-in-arm, lost in each other.

They Totally Did It! Also, I will note that in the house party of misunderstandings, Aruna Irani's Neema told Raj that she was willing to be "lovers," but later, he tells Bobby that he respects Neema and considers her a confidant. The film doesn't show sex as something to be taken lightly (an attitude clearly condemned in Raj's creepy friend), but nor is it judgmental about it. Morality is about being a decent person, not about following the rules, so Neema can sleep with whoever she wants and still be a good person. If Raju and Bobby treat each other with respect, getting physical can make their attachment stronger -- as it clearly does.

"Na Mangun Sona Chandi" shows Raj frolicking with Bobby's father and other festival-goers, as he innocently sets up the meeting between their parents. It's another sweet tune, representing the happy feeling of love. This transitions right into "Jhoot Bole Kauve Kata," which I've already talked about. As Bobby joins the dance, warning him not to lie about his feelings (another of the songs on the communication theme), Raj turns and sees her, and the moment is totally charged with hormones. How could it not -- look at her! Every time I watch it, I wonder how she manages to move like that. Wow. There's a scene in the 1977 Dharmenda/Hema Malini movie Dream Girl, when a TV gets turned on in the midst of some hectic comic shenanigans. "Jhoot Bole" is playing on the set, and the action stops while they all watch Dimple dance for a moment.

Odd as that is, it is also perfectly understandable.

In retrospect, one of the things I like best about the song is its placement in the story. With its obviously sexual charge (including that mock spanking!), a lot of directors might have made it the moment of their feelings being made clear. But because it's after "Hum Tum," it's not an awakening -- it's a continuation. Also, because it occurs in a public place, right in front of her father, it helps represent the idea that the young people's feelings are more or less inevitable, so they're being transitioned into the larger society. That is, the idea that if they want to get married, their parents should just let them get married, is under the surface.

That usually should seem obvious. But sadly, the meeting between their parents goes horribly wrong, and by the time it's over, both their fathers forbid them to see each other. (The song that illustrates their separation, "Ankhiyon Ko Rahne De," is the only song in the film that I'm not wildly enthused with: it's a nice little sad number, but nothing too special. Sorry, Laxmikant Pyaralel, but you've still got a pretty good track record here).

Bobby gets sent out of town, and Raj's father immediately finds him a bride-to-be, which clearly horrifies Neema. Aruna Irani is fantastic throughout as the vampy "older woman" who's seductive toward Raj, but she proves that she has his and Bobby's best interests at heart, encouraging him to run away while he still can. Of course, because she's a self-respecting vamp, she reveals this in the crazy cabaret number "Ae -- Ae -- Ae -- Ae -- Phansa!" while wearing a shiny orange minidress. And I want to have a New Year's Eve party full of freaky, enormous paper mache monsters! Fortunately, there's still time to plan.

Yesterday I described Rishi's Raj as a nerd, and that's clearly how he starts. But the course of true love gives him a makeover:

Black Leather Baby Face! Still squeaky-clean, though.

Luckily for my tear ducts, the angry fathers, who've been trading insults and threats, eventually learn that their enmity only endangers the lives of their own children. Talk about a theme even more eternal than Laila Majnu/Romeo and Juliet. Supposedly, the film was originally intended to end unhappily, but for once, it almost seems more radical to give it a happy ending. Raj's impassioned speech about how children aren't their parents' property, and they have the right to their own lives, makes it kind of an anti-Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, especially to someone who saw that latter film first. Sometimes you have to go back further to find the less conservative messages.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The child is father to the man

A brief introduction to the the cult of Rishi Kapoor:

Despite some bobbles during the '80s, he's had a long career, playing strong romantic leads from 1973's Bobby to 1989's Chandni (both named after their heroines -- I may already be onto something about his appeal). Along the way, he also stole some larger ensemble films with his comedy roles. He's since gone on to a second act playing fathers and wise uncle figures, and in 2010 is up for Best Supporting Actor (thrillingly, along with his first romantic costar, Dimple Kapadia) in this year's Filmfare Awards. Go, Rishi!

But probably the most important background that a new viewer needs to know is that Rishi is part of the famous Kapoor family. He's the uncle of today's superstar Kareena, the nephew of iconic stars Shammi and Shashi, and the son of the super-iconic Raj Kapoor, who I always want to tag as an "impresario." Well, why not: he wrote, he directed, he starred, he discovered new heroines, he steered the music, and generally strikes me as somebody with an ego larger than life.

Rishi made his debut playing his father's character as a young man in Mera Naam Joker, but since that's over three hours long, and the word "self-indulgent" is the single most common description I've heard, I'm not going to sit through that -- not this week, anyway. Still, get a look at that chubby schoolboy in this clip (but beware, he's tormented by the thought of a naked chick at the end. Don't want to startle anyone. I was certainly startled. That's Raj for ya). Likewise, his first starring role was also in one of his father's films, the iconic teen romance Bobby (more on that later).

When I started with the Bollywood, I was almost immediately dubious of Raj, just from the looks of him. When I finally got around to seeing him in a movie -- Shree 420, to be precise --I knew all about the Charlie Chaplinesque Everyman figure he was supposed to play, and was psychologically prepared to be irritated by it. And yet, the film had barely started before I found myself totally drawn in by "Mera Joota Hai Japani" number, especially Raj's one-handed arm flings. I tried to do a screenshot, but it's all in the movement, so I gave up.

What was I finding so endearing about Raj's musical numbers, especially compared to his acting overall? The song itself is great, but that's no excuse. He wasn't exactly grateful, at least based on this specimen. On the contrary, he was kind of stiff and awkward. Then it hit me: he reminded me of Rishi! Rishi is graceful more often than not, but I have seen him occasionally look awkward, and even in those moments, he remains deeply likeable. More exposure has proved to me that I do, in fact, like Raj pretty much only to the extent that his performance reminds me of his son.

Here's the original version of Karz's famous "Om Shanti Om" number, which at full length is even sillier than the Shahrukhized version:

Rishi is definitely having one of his more awkward moments here, especially while climbing onto that spinning platform. During one viewing among many, it suddenly struck me: it looks for all the world like it wasn't even rehearsed. Like they got the thing working just in time for the shoot (reminiscent of the shark in Jaws), or else they just said, "Yeah, well, and then we'll lower you down and you'll jump off," and he's trying to figure out how to do it without wiping out, live and on camera.

But for the most part, he's so buoyant and happy. And he seems to have such confidence in himself. As someone who has sometimes been a sucker for angsty men, it's refreshing to see someone on the screen who seems to be having a plain old good time. That quality spills all the way over into effervescence in Amar Akbar Anthony, especially in his musical numbers, but even in the quick bits like his keeping a hospital bed booked (the better to woo pretty doctor Neetu Singh).

But more on those topics later.

For now, let's use the "Jhoot Bole" number in Bobby, for which I can't find a decent quality video on YouTube, to explain Rishi's career. In this corner: a beautiful, sexy girl in a filmy, midriff-baring costume, bursting with energy and dancing like her life depends on it!

In the other corner: a soft, squeaky-clean, Mama's Boy-looking nerd in a powder-blue pantsuit.

But he's such a happy, adorable puppy! I am totally willing to believe these two disparate souls will fall in epic love.

In Shree 420, Raj proves he can do both the nerdy innocent and clean up to become a suave gentleman. For the most part, Rishi seems to have gotten a double dose of the nerdy gene. Fortunately, that's my type.

(To be continued...)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Introducing the Man of the '70s

There are all sorts of classics I've never reviewed, mainly because, well, they're classics. Someone has already done the job. So I've neglected a whole bunch of things that I would consider classics by any standard: Sholay (1975), Deewar (also 1975 -- a heckuva year, as we say here in Fargo-land), Don (1978), and even, most criminally, Amar Akbar Anthony (1977).

Apart from AAA, which I'll get to later, I'd most highly recommend Don for those who are wondering about the '70s. (And don't we all, one way or another, wonder about the '70s?) If you're not sure how the off-the-wall villains and decorative motifs of the groovy decade will sit with you, it's a pretty pain-free introduction. If you're going to like the crazy-wacky, you'll probably know by the time you're done with Don. It's got Helen, Pran, tiger masks, a double role, a clever plot, and various random acts of violence, but in a context that never gets too heavy.

Strangely, all the movies in that list of must-see films from the '70s seem to have two things in common: I haven't written about them, and they star Amitabh Bachchan. I guess I've written about Zanjeer and Naseeb, but largely, I've pretty much ignored the whole Big B oeuvre in my blog. The weird thing about Amitabh is, even when I love him, I just don't have much to say.

It's funny how that is. There are certain tropes, certain themes, and certain personalities that I can't help gravitating toward. Like how I didn't choose to be obsessed with disco movies; I just am. If your film contains disco; outrageous clothes; shrines or temples of any description, from any religious system; graveyards and/or skeletons; or cephalopods, preferably squids -- I don't really need to know anything else about it. In fact, I was recently reading about a film (Bhoot Bhungla) and came across the phrase "song and dance sequence involving skeletons and the Twist." I think I'd ordered a potentially dubious copy on eBay before finishing the review!

And while there are many actors that I admire, many I lovelovelove -- I don't love them in a way that makes me want to talk about them all day, which is the ineffable quality that makes them bloggable. That is an elite group, and let's hope nobody gets it in mind to do a '90s week, because one of those people is in fact SRK, who I know has been talked about to death...and yet, I always find more to say. Fortunately, for now, my Ram Jaane obsession is twenty years in the future, and let's hope unleashing it remains an idle threat. Because I have PLENTY to say about the Man of the '70s.

Logically -- even looking at the movies I think are objectively the best, and the ones I'd recommend in a second as most archetypal, as well as entertaining -- Amitabh Bachchan owned the '70s. Besides him, many other actors of great talent and supernaturally good looks (male and female) ruled the screen, and are well worth discussing. But in the strange, squid-encrusted world of ghosts and goddesses that I call home, only one man can be said to reign supreme in the '70s.

Yup -- may as well call it Rishi Kapoor Week around here. Of course, it's always Rishi Kapoor Week somewhere. But this week, I plan to revel in it! Movies that are such obvious classics that I don't need to write about them, I'm going to ramble on about them anyway. Consider yourself invited -- or warned, as the case may be.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My Name is Han

(Images courtesy of my honey. Welcome to the wonderful world of Bollywood blogging!)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Summer Lovin' -- Happened So Fast

The other day, while writing up a Rishi Kapoor sob-fest, I idly thought to myself "How long are they going to keep making Laila Majnu/Romeo and Juliet stories?" After watching 1988's Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, I've decided the answer is: as long as they need to. The specific obstacles and/or cultural taboos may change, but until the day comes when nobody has a love affair disapproved of by parents or society, there'll always be an audience.

The young lovers in QSQT are so happy-go-lucky in the beginning, with their college dance parties and cheerful co-ed camping trips (despite the "rowdies" lurking in the woods, ready to attack young girls who are out on their own), I found their budding romance a very disconcerting fit with the tragic blood feud that's going to wrench them apart.

I guess that's really the point, and also makes the movie a good example of the conflict between modern and traditional attitudes: pretty Rashmi is an old-fashioned dutiful daughter, but she's also a contemporary college student. Here, suddenly, her parents are saying that her arranged bridegroom will get to decide whether she can finish school or not. Even without a Raj waiting to carry her off on his red motorscooter, I like to think she'd have rebelled sooner or later.

A lot of movies debut new faces, but few are as auspicious as "Introducing Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawli." (Although of course Aamir worked as a child actor, and Juhi had a few earlier minor credits). When Aamir showed up in a polo shirt, holding a tennis racket, I couldn't help but think: Jeetendra Junior! Or maybe, since he's so young and preppy, like early John Cusack. Of course, Cusack's teen movies didn't, as a general rule, start with grim subplots about suicide and murder.

There's a whole slew of awesome angry relatives: Dalip Tahil, getting some motivation for his scowling. Alok Nath, as always, the voice of reason. Reema Lagoo, on the other side of the feud. I also loved new-to-me Shehnaz Kudia (who sadly has very few credits) as Rashmi's most modern-thinking friend, always trying to get her to stand up to her dad, and happy to help the couple elope. As an added bonus, the soundtrack contains some evergreen Udit and Alka tunes I was already familiar with, especially "Ae Mere Humsafar" and "Akele Hain To Kya Gum Hai."

Most importantly, the movie very sweetly includes a personal greeting in the credits: "Special Thanks - Time Pass Club."

You're welcome!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Croc beats Cheetah

I have a necklace with an antique Ganesh pendant that I wear quite a bit. Once in a while, someone will comment on it, but not very often. One day, a frequent customer spotted it and said, "That's Ganesh, isn't it?" When I said yes, he began to regale me with how much he loves Shiva, the Goddess of Death, because she gives such tough love to her devotees. "You might be thinking of Kali, dude," I thought to myself, but this is someone I'm used to dealing with in "smile and nod" mode, so I continued to smile and nod.

About an hour later, another customer came in, clearly someone with developmental issues, but pleasant enough. Once more: "That's Ganesh, isn't it?" When I said yes, he added confidently, "The Remover of Obstacles." When I agreed, he beamed and added, "I know that from The Cheetah Girls: One World." He went on to explain that there's a whole Ganesh-related subplot in the Cheetah Girls movie.

Oh, great, I griped inside my brain. Now I feel like I must watch this, just for the morbid curiosity of it all! So I got the movie at the library, brought it home, put it in, and, inundated with trailers for Disney products, just couldn't bring myself to do it. I turned to my pile of recent and semi-recent purchases for solace, and what did I see: a picture of Rekha with black lace gloves and an enormous, crazy-shiny bow on her head. Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) it was!

I can't image that anyone who reads my blog isn't also reading Memsaab Story, which is where I first heard about this miracle of science, medicine, and plastic surgery. Really, click the link and read her review -- and pay close attention to the photos -- but put down your beverage first, or I won't be accountable for the consequences.

From her review, I recognized the storyline immediately from something called Return to Eden, which I watched religiously on late night TV in the 1986-1987 school year. What we've got here is: an Eighties Hindi film knockoff of an Eighties Australian soap opera knockoff of Dynasty. With crocodile attacks (both versions). If anyone knows of anything that sounds more ridiculous, please let me know ASAP -- just keep in mind I've already seen more than my fair share of Mithun movies.

Just for background, compare this with this. Isn't it great that we can have both?

Since I just did a Goddess film overview, I have to mention the devotional opening, which started things off with a lovely image of Sarasvati. I couldn't help thinking of that part in Kal Ho Naa Ho, when Shah Rukh tells the singers to quit torturing Sarasvati with their out-of-tune worship. Hopefully, the Goddess of Art and Wisdom appreciated this crazy artifact. And then, OMG -- how did I not realize this was directed by Rakesh Roshan, of Koyla, Karan Arjun, and Hrithik-spawning fame? His movies are always insane!

As the movie begins, Rekha is all dowdied up, with a smudge on her face that I think is meant to be a disfiguring scar, and frolicking about the estate with her cute little children. She's making an effort, but she's sad, because she's a widow. Little does she know how lucky she is! The phone rings, just in time for her to unknowingly hear her father's murder. Then her "best friend" and the friend's lover cook up a scheme for him to marry poor bereft Rekha for her fortune. The friend doesn't know that he intends to kill her, and well, neither does Rekha, obviously, until she's standing up in a boat, merrily snapping photos of a crocodile, and he shoves her right in.

Luckily, she survives. Oddly, the most damage seems to have been done to her face, which is now really disfigured. Like the beast just wanted to mess with her more than eat her. Once recovered, she gets plastic surgery, and returns home with an assumed name, to supplant her former friend as a top supermodel (and as Memsaab has hilariously documented, oh the horrors of '80s so-called "fashion"!) and take revenge on the man who ruined her life.

Now, I understand, when someone has pushed you into the waiting jaws of a crocodile, you might be eager to indulge in a little croc-feeding of your own. However, just going to the police would actually make life a lot easier in the long run. And what about the children? Somehow, Rekha seems surprised to discover than this guy hasn't been nice to her kids. Maybe his throwing her to the crocodile was a warning sign?

Two things I have to add: what's going on the world when a film contains a disco version of the "Chariots of Fire" theme, and the music wasn't even by Bappi Lahiri? I have to wonder if Bappi feels ripped off.

Secondly, we are all familiar from disco films with the scene where the hero faces his rival in some kind of dance-off. Here it's a sort of catwalk competition. I know we're supposed to be rooting for poor wronged Rekha, but sorry -- not in that pink monstrosity she's wearing! If I were judging, the bad girl would win in a landslide:

In the interest of historical preservation, here is my review of Return to Eden (the ongoing series, not the more Khoon Bhari Maang-like mini-series, which I still haven't seen, and yes, there's an emptiness in my life). It appeared in The Time/Space Continuum, the proto-blog I wrote and sent to one subscriber (my sister) when I was college. DVDs of the show are available, but you'd need an all-region player. Fortunately, there are clips on YouTube, including this one of the original croc attack, and a random office scene that features some of those ugly hats. I was actually shocked to discover a different actress played Jilly in the miniseries...maybe she had plastic surgery too.

Adam and Eve Are Turning in Their Graves

When Dallas and Dynasty get dull, it's nice to know that their fine traditions are being carried on with truly awe-inspiring tacki- and tawdriness by the imported nighttime soap Return to Eden, the obvious low budget of which gets in the way of its attempt to portray the life of "the richest woman in Australia." Peta Toppana, formerly the nice, long-suffering "Kahr-en" of Prisoner: Cell Block H, plays Jilly Stewart, the half-sister and evil nemesis of mining heiress Stephanie Harper (Rebecca Gilling). In recent episodes, Stephanie has lost the business she ran, the family home (an estate called Eden), and the plastic surgeon husband who repaired her face after a near-fatal crocodile attack. Although wealthy and eligible men regularly fall all over Stephanie, she is known in my social circles as "the Lizard," due to her weird eyes and facial contortions. And come on, no real millionaire would allow her only daughter -- a supposed fashion designer, no less -- to dress like such a frump. Featuring the ugliest hats in soap opera history and throwing the word "bitch" around at every opportunity, this show has plot lines that edge right out of improbable and into the utterly ludicrous. If you can find it on late-night tv, it's a don't miss!

Rishi Aaj Kal

After Layla Majnu, I popped in Love Aaj Kal (2009), a Netflix that had been lying around for a few days. Until it started, I had completely forgotten that Rishi Kapoor is in it, playing an Elder Statesman of Love, a la Delhi 6.

We've just been gathering loads of evidence about that, yaar.

Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone play modern lovers who openly reject the idea of a Layla Majnu "one soul in two bodies" kind of love. They've been together two years, enjoying the relationship without any kind of overt commitment. When their careers take them in different geographical directions, they break up amicably, staying in touch by phone and chat, in many ways more honest with each other than when they were dating.

But once they start seeing other people, each is more conflicted than either wants to admit. Eventually, the story that the friendly coffee shop owner (Rishi) is telling Saif, about the extremes he once went to for love, starts to resonate more strongly with that of his contemporary counterparts.

Talking about sex, Rishi says that in his day, "There was respect, and a proper way to do things. First, we would fall in love, then rebel against our families. After that, we would get married." The "rebel against our families" part is stated so matter-of-factly -- just part of the traditional way of doing things. Ha!

Among other things (like the fact that Saif's rebound girlfriend isn't the total blonde bimbo she at first appears), I really enjoyed the whole subplot about how Saif gets his dream job, and moves to his dream town (San Francisco). At first, he's ecstatic. Everything is exciting and new. But eventually, as we see in montage, the dream job becomes just the job he goes to every day. He sinks into a dull routine. Even apart from the whole lonely lack-of-love thing, movies rarely show the kind of let-down that can occur after a life goal has been achieved, when there's an accompanying high, and then it's back to normal life again.

Above all, the ideas about love -- that people can fall in love whether they believe in it or not; that making a relationship can be just as hard if the obstacle is family honor and disapproval, or just knowing your own mind; and that choosing plain old commitment can be as squishily romantic as some huge romantic gesture -- are all ones that I just really, really like. There's a reason why Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel, so while I can sob over a sweeping Bollywood melodrama with the best of them, a romance that's balanced with realism and tempered with cynicism is sometimes even better.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rishi Kapoor: Before the Sweaters

Possibly part of a series. But no promises!

The unbearably romantic tragedy-fest of Laila Majnu (1976) begins with a story-song about two warring clans (led by Iftekhar and Kamal Kapoor, so it's already awesome). Their children fall in innocent love, but are separated by the hatred of their families. The scene abruptly shifts to a camel auction at an open-air market, interrupted by a sudden, violent dust storm.

"What does nature want?" someone wails in the crowd. Nature wants one thing -- to bring this man:

Together with this woman:

The wind blows her scarf right onto his head, he follows her around in the streets, and that very night, he sneaks into her bedroom to tie an anklet on her while she sleeps. Excuse me while I stop to gape at the spectacle of Chintuji's astonishing handsomeness.

Obviously, hot as this all is, it can't end happily. But along the way we get cleverly staged stunts, gorgeous gowns (even on the servant girls), and comic sidekicks who are actually funny (including Rishi's delightful Rafoo Chakkar cohort, Paintal). Danny Denzongpa gets to show his stuff in a role that's noble rather than sinister. As for Rishi -- given the release dates, he could well have been filming this concurrently with the modern teenage Romeo of Kabhi Kabhie, or his classic comedy role in Amar Akbar Anthony. Mind boggling. Here he gives the performance of a lifetime, sensitive and nuanced even when he's rolling around in the sand, a tattered madman. He may have won some of us over while spinning on a giant record, in a ridiculous sequined jumpsuit, but neither he, nor we, have anything to be embarrassed about.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hopelessly Devoted to You

Cute animated offerings to Jai Santoshi Maa turn into the movie's credits...and vice versa.

Like most people who blog about Bollywood, I disapprove of the sloppy American media tendency to describe everything in the world in terms of Western imagery: i.e. Shah Rukh Khan as “the Indian Tom Cruise,” a statement that is wrong on so many levels. But I’ve watched four devotional Goddess movies so far, in three different languages, and I have to say that all of them are basically Cinderella stories. Maybe the truth is that "Cinderella" is really a village Goddess story. Which would explain all those fairy godmothers.

In each film, there’s a virtuous young woman who is persecuted by either an evil mother-in-law or an evil stepmother, along with attendant evil sisters-in-law or evil step-sisters. They are generally cruel to her, and, in particular, force her to do all the housework, which is depicted as extremely hard labor. But the heroine doesn’t shirk her duty, and in the end, her devotion to her goddess ultimately makes everything right, and whoever tormented her is punished and, usually, turned into a devotee and redeemed. Unless they're an evil tantric, in which case, the wrath is a little more graphic.

The ones I've seen so far are:

Jai Santoshi Maa: 1975. Hindi. Here's a lovely, lovely clip, just before the heroine gets the final twist of the knife. The back-up devotees are her scheming sisters-in-law.

Ammoru: 1995. Telugu. I can resist no opportunity to re-post this scene from the climax. It's kind of long, and becomes quite gory, but it's fantastic.

Jai Daksineshwar Kaali Maa. 1996, according to the certificate. Hindi. Another scene of great Goddess action!

Maa Meldi Tari Mer: Netflix says 2005. The info on this clip says 1999. The IMDB doesn't know it exists. It is, however, in Gujarati.

So far, I haven't seen any devotional films dealing with male gods (although I own a Hanuman film and a Balaji film, which I will get to one of these days). I did watch Hema Malina's Meera, about the famous poet and hardcore Krishna devotee. But that's more a straight biopic, so while it has devotional elements, being about the life of a saint, the whole tone is different from the goddess movies.

The immense popularity of Jai Santoshi Maa is generally credited with kick-starting this particular devotional trend. I really like the fact that in this version, the heroine's love interest was fleshed out a little more than in some of the others (although that didn't stop me from thinking he was an idiot, when he acted like one). He starts out as a happy-go-lucky younger brother, playing the flute and singing with a band that goes to devotional festivals. When he and pretty Satyavati meet up, the course of true love runs surprisingly smoothly: their families are totally agreeable to the love match.

It isn't until after the wedding that the bride discovers her sister-in-laws are two-faced schemers, and as for the groom: the family is hoping that marriage will pressure the artistic son into settling down to farm labor. The family that's made him the favorite resents him for it -- a detail with some emotional honesty to it -- and it eventually breaks out into open conflict, spurred on by the most evil bhabi.

Santoshi Maa is also the only one I've seen so far with a heavenly macrocosm/earthly microcosm element: the goddess herself, relatively new to the pantheon, is resented by the other goddesses, who are no longer as popular as the new, more approachable girl in town. They plot against her best devotee much like Adversary torments Job (but unlike the Old Testament God, it's done against Santoshi Maa's wishes, and she actually comes down and helps out when things get worst).

Of the films, Ammoru is definitely the most sophisticated, and not just because of the Western-style special effects. The heroine’s in-laws, a Tantric black magician and his enabling mother, are more devious than outright abusive, which makes her seem like less of a doormat and, crucially, her husband less spineless than the men in these movies sometimes appear. I can’t be the only one yelling at the father in Dakshineswar Kali (who is, by the way, Alok Nath!) that he wouldn’t need to rely so much on Mother’s help if he stood up even a little to his henpecking wife, who seems to have married him solely to make him and his daughter miserable.

Also, in Ammoru, the heroine’s relationship with the goddess includes the possibility of doubt and misunderstanding. It doesn’t stay simple. She has always been the most devout girl in the village, but the complications of life cause her to doubt the unquestioning faith that once came so easily to her.

When the evil relatives concoct a false story against the mysterious, miracle-working little girl who’s really a manifestation of the goddess, it puts the heroine in a position where she feels she has to choose between loyalty to her family and devotion to the goddess. While the specific situation is fantasy-oriented, the basic conflict is a realistic one. Later, when terrible, worst-thing-that-could-happen tragedy strikes, she feels that the goddess has abandoned her, and that there’s no point in calling on her for help; exemplifying, in other words, a spiritual despair verging on atheism. At that point, the storyline demands that she has to make the first move back toward the goddess, but when she does, the goddess delivers and then some.

In Dakshineswari Kali's test of its heroine's faith, by contrast, it’s absurd that the saintly Jyoti's loving in-laws would so quickly believe that she’s cheating on her husband, especially since it requires them to believe the story of someone they already know is a criminal and an enemy of the family. It makes no sense that she would strive to cure her husband of insanity, the subplot in the early part of her marriage, when that would obviously make it easier for her to cheat on him. However, metaphorically, it's a real extra torture for her, since she was already treated so badly in her own family, then belatedly found the loving mother she never had, only to lose everything again.

This film does, however, benefit from the presence of top-billed Hema Malini, as Kali. She and Ammoru's Ramya Krishna are, so far, my Best Actress in an All-Powerful Deity Role nominees.

When I look back on Maa Meldi and Dakshineswar Kali, I think of them as being low-budget, even kind of cheesy. But when I go back to them for a peek at a particular scene (and why haven't I bought Maa Meldi? Ahh, because it's "out of stock" on Nehaflix, like too many of their devotional films), I start getting completely drawn in. They're surprisingly compelling, even when they just open up with a long hymn to the goddess in question, before introducing the characters -- a tactic which helps remind us just who the star of the film really is.

Cinderella stories that they are, all of these movies have an element of martyrdom which is sure to drive some viewers crazy, but it usually comes across more like the conundrum of religious devotion than it is does a generic woman's lot in life. Not only are the heroines all particularly devoted to their goddesses, always singing at the temple and whatnot, but they are shown giving food to the poor, and crucially, turning the other cheek.

In Christian terms, as in, for example, 1 Peter 3:9: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing." Or, as in one of my favorites (Luke 6: 32-35): "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."

The reason that's a favorite is because of that "he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" bit, which is such a rebuke to the more judgmental of the religiously inclined.

Similarly, the scenes in which the poor beggars or elderly women are given charity by the heroine, then turn out to be visiting deities in disguise, has an echo in Jesus' famous "whatever you did for one of the least of did for me." (Matthew 25:40). In Ammoru, the most pious believer proves to be the one who takes some of the food meant for Mother's offering and gives it to a hungry visitor. One guess who she turns out to be:

I only bring up the Christian slant because I am, of course, in the middle of whitebread America, and that's the environment in which my religious concepts were formed. The extent to which these high-minded sentiments go completely against the grain of human nature is clearly visualized in the suffering devotee sections of these films, which I think could frustrate many viewers almost beyond the ability to sit through them. Whatever suffering or persecution comes their way, these heroines absolutely refuse to return evil for evil, and it's hard to even watch. But a lot of people believe in religions that actually call upon them to do this, despite its going against almost every instinct.

Of course, I can only speak for myself, but it might be easier for me to be more forgiving and cheek-turning if I knew I had a kick-ass Goddess on my side, who'd not only knock heads on my behalf, but slash them off if necessary.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Big Ball of Bland

Okay, it's mean to pick on Salman Khan, but I can't help my kneejerk reaction to this headline on the cover of the Indian People magazine:

" "I've Never Had a Bad Day": Looking back on his two decades in Bollywood, Salman Khan says no matter how rocky the journey, he would not have it any other way."

I hope that's a typical People headline, grabbing a quote out of context to make the blandest statement possible, and the article at least contains a vague disclaimer like, "Well, maybe I wouldn't have run over those people. That day kinda sucked a little."

I've been noticing the public use of language more than usual. Words have always been my thing, so they tend to pop out at me. But like, someone was making a sign at my place of employment, and we went to prove the correct use of the apostrophe in "Presidents' Day." Only to discover that the name of the actual federal holiday is still really "Washington's Birthday," even though I haven't heard anyone call it that in years.

The history of the blurring of the holiday, which ended up lumping Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays together in popular thought, is entangled with the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" -- something I'd never heard of, having taken the goofy "holidays must fall on Mondays even when they don't" thing for granted. An actual copy of the signed act is here, and boy, does it pack a lot of legalistic gobbledy-gook in a few short sentences.

The Wikipedia drily adds "The Act was designed to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees." And apparently, zooming through various sources, that's really all it means for something to be a "federal holiday." People employed by the federal government don't go to work. Or as I think of it, "a postal holiday," because that's what it means to me. Nobody else is guaranteed anything, although some of us are very lucky, and we mostly align to get these random holidays.

I realize this is all a trivial thing that my attention happened to fall onto. But still -- I'm just getting really tired of the artificiality of so many things. I'm sick of words and names and symbols being detached from all meaning and all reality. If we care about Washington's Birthday -- and it could have some symbolic meaning for the country, which is mostly ignored -- why not call it what it is, and celebrate it when it is? Same goes for Lincoln. Sloppily combining the two generally means that neither gets any appreciation. Any potential meaning is just squished together into a big ball of bland.

Actually, my idea of a holiday is Talk Like a Pirate Day, because some people just made it up. It exists because they observe it. That's a holiday: a popular celebration. I don't need an official proclamation to celebrate my own birthday, or my honey's, or Shah Rukh Khan's. Not that I'd be such a nerd to do THAT, mind you. Of course, these are more or less private. My friends might be celebrating along with me, but it's not something that can unite the community at large in festivity. But neither can "official" holidays that have been bleached of all significance.

From there, I could go to the communication that goes on between us human beings in this country and our government: all of it formal and mediated and legalistic, nothing straightforward at all. Where straightforward communication isn't possible, the pent-up desire for expression, actual communication, will become twisted and unhealthy, bursting out at inappropriate objects, or with irrational rage. One the one hand, official channels where nothing seems honest, by virtue of stiff formality and a roundabout, spin-heavy use of language; on the other, talk radio, or mobs in the street.

Oh my God, I'm saying it turns upon itself, and becomes perverse. I'm talking like a Freudian, only about the Communication Drive instead of the Sex Drive! (Buries face in hands).

As if that isn't embarrassing enough: with those words in my text, the blog bots are going to be out in full force now. Great.

But anyway. I don't want to be a naysayer -- I want to put forth an idea of positive communication, where people say what they mean and mean what they say, and can expect similar courtesy back. It's bizarre what a strange and difficult idea this sometimes is. What I see all the time is, that people are using "spin" and a certain artificial style of language, and avoidance of what they really mean, or what the situation is, even in circumstances that should be utterly trivial. I see people refusing to face reality or talk honestly even when nothing is really at stake. That doesn't bode well for dealing with more serious things.

And now, out into the world, where I will find a hundred new things to annoy me. Thank God for the Hyderabad radio!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Just Relax, Just Relax, Just Go To Sleep

 Jennifer's Body (2009)

I never saw the critically-acclaimed Juno -- I couldn't bear that "doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet" bit in the trailer. Shudder! But I was interested in Diablo Cody's follow-up, because I'm willing to give a lot more benefit of the doubt to a gory tale of demonic possession. Even when it's named after a Hole song. Now that I've seen it, I'm not surprised that it flopped, mainly because it's much more in line with Heathers or Twin Peaks than, say, the current crop of Friday the 13th remakes, and those were cult phenomena. 

Jennifer's Body follows a pair of mismatched Minnesota girls who've been best friends all their lives. Wallflowerish Needy is played by Amanda Seyfried, who shone as both the wild, charismatic flashback girl in Veronica Mars (hey, shades of Twin Peaks again!) and as the sensible daughter appalled by her own family on Big Love. Sexy, domineering Jennifer is played by Megan Fox, showing more range than she did in Transformers. One night, they go out to see an upcoming indie band, and before you know it, the roadhouse burns down, a human sacrifice goes awry, and Jennifer starts eating high school boys (with the side effect, Needy notes, that "her hair is amazing").

Everything about the scenario has metaphoric weight. What do you do when someone you love seems to turn into a demon? This is, sadly, a real-life situation many people have to face; it's just usually not so literal. It's a good touch that Needy is actually on the scene, watching helplessly as her friend makes her fatal mistake, after which she will never be the same again. Then there's the Satan-worshippers, prepared to sacrifice others -- anybody, really -- for the most shallow of ambitions (they want to be the next Maroon 5). Heedless actions have unforeseeable consequences all over the place. And, of course, the prettiest, hottest girl in school becomes a literal man-eater. Driven by insecurity and emptiness, she preys on others to make herself feel alive.

Maybe that's actually a little too much metaphor, with the emotional undercurrents a little too close to the surface. But I didn't find it too heavy-handed, and after all, a lot of teencentric horror films never get past the symbolic meaning that "sex can be dangerous." And it does, in fact, work as a compact, fairly gory little horror film, so no complaints on that score.

P.S. On Big Love, Seyfried plays Bill Paxton's daughter. He of course starred in the demon-hunting family drama Frailty. Apparently, it runs in the family!