Friday, July 9, 2010

Shameful Classics Week

One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, as Ness has charmingly reminded us with her review of Drona for Rum’s Shameful Pleasures week. While I revel in the trashy, tacky films that this week is supposed to celebrate, I don’t actually take any shame in it. I’m not ashamed of loving Bollywood - and I mean Bollywood, not Indian art house or the new rash of multiplex hits like Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na that have sprung up - one bit.

When I first stumbled upon the Bollywood blog-o-sphere, one of the things that immediately caught my attention was that it was a space not dominated by the straight, white men who make up a majority of the film snobs and academics who set the standards for mainstream (Western) cinema culture. While I have nothing against straight, white men (to misquote Chris Finch from
The Office, how can I hate straight, white men - my father is one), I do have a problem with they way they dominate cultural standards of taste.

For years, the young Filmi Girl tried to make herself like things that were considered ‘tasteful’ by these cultural gatekeepers - ‘authentic’ music by people who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments; films that either ‘meant something’ or were schlocky in a very male way; and literary fiction were the millstones around my neck. You don’t have to be Nostradamous to read between the lines. Romance? Girly/Gay. Dancing? Girly/Gay. Sparkly costumes? Girly/Gay. Melodrama? Girly/Gay. Everything I liked? Girly/Gay.

Don’t believe me? Check the list of AFI’s
Top 100 American Movies. Sure, you have your Singing in the Rain and Gone with the Wind but more dominant are the films like Lawrence of Arabia (a film so dull I left at intermission) or Godfather or a host of war movies and Westerns that have few female characters and absolutely no razzle-dazzle. Missing are the films that I no longer shamefully consider my favorites. The over-the-top Polyester and the retro-fabulous Psycho Beach Party, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at their passive-aggressive best in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the much-maligned by everyone but me Twilight: New Moon. Not to mention films I consider perfect examples of the romantic-comedy genre, like Clueless, While You Were Sleeping... and The Cutting Edge.

Films that I consider good are not what the critical establishment considers good.

Bollywood has, sadly, taken a leaf out of the AFI playbook in recent years, giving us less of the razzle-dazzle and
masala that I love and more of things that would pass for the American critical version of ‘good.’ Coincidence or not, Bollywood revenues have also been dropping over approximately the same time. For every Housefull that pleases the masses (and Filmi Girl), there are three oh-so-very-tasteful bombs.

So, I’m not ashamed to think that
Napolean Dynomite is an excellent film and Lawrence of Arabia is not. Good and bad are not objective standards - they are subjective and we shouldn’t be ashamed to like things that our cultural gatekeepers think are weird, trashy, girly, gay, and/or deliberately difficult.

With that in mind, here are a few recent Bollywood films that I think are good - despite the lack of box office earnings, critical praise, and/or hatred of the film by the lead actor.

Tashan / Jaan-e-Mann

Call this one an Akshay Kumar two-fer - two films that deconstruct Bollywood tropes (masala in the former, Yash Raj NRI romance in the latter) while also unironically giving us those tropes. Brashly clever and deliberately weird, they offer the best of both worlds for viewers like me who enjoy a bit of meta-narrative analysis with our item-songs.

Mangal Pandey: The Rising

I know that Aamir “The Perfectionist” Khan has tried to distance himself from this one but I don’t know why - unless he just hates the stink of box office mediocrity. Sure, complex historical events are boiled down to facilitate the storytelling but there isn’t a historical film in the world that doesn’t do that. The emotions and relationships portrayed are complex and seem very real. Aamir tackles the role of the reluctant patriot with aplomb, giving us (among other things) a believable bond with non-evil white guy Toby Stephens, and a look at his last role before he turned into the nipped-and-tucked will-only-take-roles-where-he-plays-27-and-under Aamir of today.


This was a gem of a film overlooked by almost everyone for reasons I can’t begin to understand. Riteish Deshmukh plays a sweet-hearted and shy boy who learns to stand on his own two feet through the help of Genius the Genie (Amitabh Bachchan). And layered on top of that gut-punchingly effective emotional narrative is a huge swath of Bollywood meta-humor, lots of beautiful art design, and some very clever gags and physical comedy from our Riteish. I don’t know if he’ll ever get his due in B-town and it makes me sad. You would think that in a world of multiplex hits, that somebody could put the talents of eternal Beta Male Riteish to good use.

Chandni Chowk to China

Oh, Nikhil Advani, once again making a film that only I love. We should seriously just hook up a pipeline directly from your brain to mine. This mixed-bag of a marital arts tale is not perfect but it doesn’t deserve to be consigned to the trash heap while much less intelligent fare, like
Race, zooms away with the ‘guilty pleasure’ tag. CC2C is a coming-of-age story anchored by Mr. Martial Arts himself - Akshay Kumar. He is ably supported by Ranvir Shorey, Mithun Chakroborthy, and Deepika Padukone (mostly). The gags fly fast and furious, the script delivers most of the right emotional cues, and the song picturizations are extremely clever and engaging. In fact, the only problem I have with CC2C is the half-baked romance (and if Deeps can’t work up romantic chemistry with sex bomb Akshay Kumar, than all hope really is lost).

No Smoking

Stupid Eros won't let me embed videos)

Yes, John Abraham looks good with his kit off but the main reason I love this film is that it's clever and pushes boundaries. While films like
Johnny Gaddar and Kaminey play at edgy without actually pushy any boundaries, No Smoking crosses every line there is and I love it. Cross-dressing, gender-bending item song? Check. Surrealistic plot? Check. Not-so-subtle gay subtext? Check. Nearly naked John Abraham? Check. No Smoking is a delibrately complicated and difficult film but the rewards are great for puzzling it out.


lvrplfc4l said...

As a straight white man I have to say I couldn't agree more. I think we spend to much time trying to analyze everything to the n-th degree. For me movies are simple, was I entertained. I stopped caring what people paid to give opinions said years ago. One of the reasons I read blogs like yours or Beth's is to find interesting movies I haven't seen. Do I agree with all your choices, no but hey that's what makes us all unique.

I do like all 5 of your choices here and yes I own a copy of Aladin, I think Riteish is one of the most under appreciated actors in Bollywood.
I'm also glad to meet someone else who found LofA boring, I wish Spielberg would stop making issue movies and just entertain us, I don't get the whole vampire thing but so what, I adore a really good pop song and still think Nick Cave is a musical genius and I could read Garcia Lorca everyday for the rest of my life.

Do you think that Bollywood looking for overseas markets has pushed this to some extent, forcing them to forget their core market in order to make movies that will play in markets in Europe and America? Like you, I love the razzle-dazzle and masala and find some of the new movies to western. Any way thoughtful post.

Ness said...

We may disagree on Drona, but I HEARTILY AGREE with your choices here. Ehh, well, maybe Aladin was a little bit boring in places, but Riteish and PIMPIN SANJU BABA made up for the boring bits.

Dil Dance Maare is like, my ultimate cheer me up forever song. Mangal Pandey is the first movie I actually like Aamir Khan in. And I never fail to laugh at Akki slipping on the banana peel in CC2C, I freaking adore the crap out of that film.

Rum said...

Yaay for shame! But I have to say Dil Dance Maare wins me over every time just for Saif beginning the bandana brigade but with blonde hair! And of course Akki. But I love O Rasiya because Aamir looks like a natural Aamir, no pasty white face and un-Botoxy!

ajnabi said...

I agree with you that Riteish deserves much better treatment than he's received in B'wood... I really hope he gets it. Maybe just having Aladin on his reel will show others his flexibility as an actor. I can dream, anyway.

redsarah said...

OMG, you have written everything I've been thinking recently about Western standards of taste. I predict myself using the phrase "cultural gatekeepers", said in a slightly sneering tone, on a regular basis. I only found Bollywood 5 months ago and have been revelling ever since in these films' full emotional workouts, with song, dance and heroes who bare their chests. I can see I need to do a whole lot more research to build my own list of shameless classics.

Filmi Geek said...

Interesting post!

I am happy to say that I think there is nothing wrong with - no shame at all in - liking different sorts of movies depending upon one's mood, and seeing that different sorts of movies can be excellently made for the sorts of movies they are.

I subjectively judge a movie good if: (a) it sets out to entertain me, charm me, thrill me, make me laugh, make me cry, make me think, or any combination of the above, AND (b) it accomplishes that goal. That's really a pretty simple and very broadly applicable criterion.

When it comes to Hindi movies, lots of mainstream, multiplex, middle cinema, and parallel cinema films have managed to do both (a) and (b) for me. That is something I try to convey in my own writing about movies. I have a serious tone because that is the way my brain works, but I think (and hope) it doesn't make me any kind of snob about movies. I feel very strongly that adoring Mother India or even Ankur does not disqualify me from adoring also adoring Hum Aapke Hain Kaun or Om Shanti Om - and vice versa.

As to Hollywood, I happen to love Lawrence of Arabia (though I am neither male nor straight), but for sure other critically acclaimed Hollywood films are decidedly not my cup of tea. I *despise* all stories about the mafia as well as all stories about boxing, so no matter how brilliantly constructed The Godfather or Raging Bull may be, I will always detest them.

Kaitlyn said...

I'm going through this Shameful Classics Week (instead of watching a Bollywood movie - well you posted the Dil Dance Maare song first!) and one thing I love is that, so far and hopefully at every one... there is no "I like it ironically." It's - I love this!

Own your likes, people! I don't like I See You ironically, I like it because Arjun puts me in a drool-induced coma. I mean, because I enjoy it.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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