Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Katrina Kaif Week Day #3: New York

I know many of you may be questioning my decision to celebrate an entire week of Katrina Kaif films. While she is one of the most bankable actresses in Bollywood, Katrina has surprisingly few champions among the critics and on the blogosphere.

While I fully admit that there are better working actresses in Bombay, I don’t think anybody else brings to the table what Katrina does. Her reel life charisma reminds me a bit of Marilyn Monroe – womanly yet somehow still vulnerable, a combination that I’m sure is responsible for much of her box office appeal for the masses.

On top of that, a look at Katrina’s films is also a look at a good cross-section of contemporary Bollywood and, so, even if you don’t find her as charming as I do, I think you might still find something of value in looking over her filmography.

Day #1 can be read here and Day #2 is here and you can read my original take on New York here.

There will be mild spoilers and some discussion and images of torture.

Yash Raj’s
New York was released in June of 2009, which was right after the end of the producers strike that had blocked new Bollywood films from releasing from April to June. Three long months of no new films made the modest New York feel like manna from heaven and it received glowing reviews from forgiving critics. Audiences, too, were kind to what I called a ‘middle-class, middle-brow’ film. Looking at it from a distance of a couple of years, I don’t think it has held up well. New York is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed film and the major flaw goes by the name of Neil Nitin Mukesh, who, to put it mildly, stinks up the joint.

Before I go any further, let me give you a quick rundown of the plot.

Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh) is a mild-mannered cab driver in
Philadelphia New York. One day the FBI find guns in his cab and haul him in for questioning, with the intention of getting him to turn informant on his old friend Samir (John Abraham). His case officer is the Hindi-speaking scene-stealing Agent Roshan (Irrfan Khan), whose annoyance with Omar through the course of the film is very cathartic. After a lengthy flashback showing how Sam and Omar became friends, Omar worms his way into Samir’s trust and gets the real sccop on his outside activities.... which (*spoiler*) include terrorism.

Meanwhile, Omar is nursing an unrequited crush on Samir’s wife Maya (Katrina Kaif), a sweet woman whose day job is working with South Asians who had been illegally detained by the US government after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The film plays out Omar's involvement with Samir until the bitter end.

(Oh, Irrfan, scene-stealing yet again... When am I going to get that movie with just him and Arshad doing their comedy act from
Sunday? WHEN?)

What I liked about the story of
New York at the time that I saw it, still holds true. Unlike the pulpy and reductive Kurbaan, which follows a somewhat similar plot, New York shows us how a formerly apolitical man might be radicalized and how that radicalized man - that terrorist - is still a person, a person with family and friends and people who care about him. New York never condones terrorism but instead wants us to think about how and why people turn to terrorism and whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” are really the best way to keep us safe.

Islam is never blamed; Muslims are never blamed. If anything, we get to see just how uncaring contemporary American society can be - not that it is an excuse - but having finding the wrong support system is just one more stop on the road to extremism

(Excellent use of montage, although, to be fair, John does appear to be playing rugby - not American football.)

Signaling changes in filmmaking that have only grown since the producers strike,
New York attempts to meld a Hollywood-style narrative, in this case, a thriller, with Bollywood-style narrative techniques - songs. In this rare instance, the melding of styles really works and it’s actually pretty interesting how director Kabir Khan manages it. All the scenes that take place now are gritty. and immediate. The flashbacks take on more of a filmi feel - the extended college days flashback at the beginning gives us “Hai Junoon” and a later flashback gives another song. The film is paced well, for the most part, but there were a few niggling things that bothered me this time around that didn’t the first time I saw the film - things involving Omar.

First of all, I am in the minority who didn’t think that
Johnny Gaddar was all that and I think we can all agree now that everybody’s excitement over that film led to the casting of Neil Nitin Mukesh in lots of roles that he was not remotely capable of handling - New York being one of them. Despite his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the Filmfare awards, Omar is for all intents and purposes the protagonist of the film. This means we see a lot of him, unfortunately so, because Neil spends the entire film looking like he is going to pee his pants with fear.

Sure, that’s great when he is confronted by something scary but there were times when he was supposed to be bluffing Samir that were so unconvincing because of the aforementioned pee-pants problem. I think I actually yelled at my TV at one point for Omar to man-up. There are so many cringe-worthy moments to chose from: the scene where he realizes that Maya loves Samir gives us 30 seconds of Neil furrowing his brow with a slack-jawed expression, the scene where Samir has to shoot somebody treats us to a few seconds of Neil badly overacting by shaking his gun hand in fear; or how about the scene where Samir suggests that he and Omar get a cup of coffee and Omar practically has a heart attack? Take your pick of acting turkey.

In addition to this, there are moments of
Johnny Gaddar hangover that I have to believe came from Aditya Chopra and not my man Kabir Khan - things like a slow motion shot of Omar strutting around in sunglasses after he learns to fire a gun. REALLY? It’s so ridiculous when Omar has been set up as this nerdy, kind of weedy, nervous guy and takes you right out of the film. And there are a few other places where the background score really telegraphs a tense mood that is so incongruous with Neil’s constipated expressions that the scene becomes humorous instead of suspenseful.

And it’s such a shame that Neil delivers such a clunky performance because John Abraham puts in an a career-best performance as Samir, especially in the torture scenes. I know John as a reputation for wooden acting but as Samir, his bland expressions are a mask concealing his true intentions. Omar is able to interpret Samir’s face however he wants. Post-interval we get the infamous naked scene and, in context, it’s heart-breaking. Again, I have to applaud casting John in this role because there is something extremely unsettling about seeing a man who makes a living flaunting his abs, being forcibly stripped and tortured. Let me tell you, I have never felt so guilty for leching at John in
Dostana as when I saw him bound and handcuffed in New York.

Katrina Kaif is also great as Maya. Her acting felt breezy and effortless, which is exactly what was needed from the modern American Maya. And when we needed to see it, Katrina lets the audience know that her smile is hiding conflicted emotions. There was one sequence in particular that Katrina plays very well, opposite the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He plays a troubled former detainee named Zilgai that Maya is working with and the two of them are in a car that gets stopped by the police. The two are forced to get out of the car and we see Zilgai’s pained expression Maya is patted down by the cops. The way Katrina plays the whole thing is wonderful - she shows agitation, anger, a little fear, but she never loses control of the situation. And, importantly,
she doesn’t act like the pat-down is going to sully her honor or anything because to her (or any American woman), it’s not.

She does some other nice stuff throughout
New York - little expressions and glances that you might miss if you don’t look closely. It’s not a big role but Katrina acts her heart out and does a good job with it.

The media hype around terrorism and fighting terrorism has died down quite a bit since the Bush era ended and watching New York is a bit like looking into a time capsule in that regard, but is it a time capsule worth saving? I think so.

New York is not a feel good film and it’s not an enjoyable or cathartic film but it does have something compelling about it (minus Neil Nitin Mukesh).

Sadly, the people who might benefit the most from the message of
New York (i.e. Americans who are ignorant of the South Asian community) are the ones least likely to see it.

Ah, well... at least I have the cold comfort of knowing that Neil Nitin Mukesh has pee-pantsed his way into secondary hero roles opposite Abhishek Bachchan in time-wasting dreck like
Players. Give him a year and he'll be fighting with Zayed Khan for roles and all will be right with the world.


Daddy's Girl said...

Great post, FG! I agree with your thoughts on the film. New York was a surprisingly decent film - I wasn't expecting a lot but was actually quite impressed when I saw it - especially by John's performance, which was really, really good. Totally agree with you about Neil and his 'pee pants problem' - LOL! He was hopelessly miscast and unable to essay the role with any real credibility. His performance was so weak and painful to watch in this film, and in fact it's a testament to the other actors' fine performances, the scripting and other elements of the film, that it still worked in spite of Neil. It was a travesty that John's great performance seemed to be overlooked while Neil got nominated for awards (?) But like you said, things do seem to be righting themselves in a most satisfying manner... nothing against Neil, but he just has a really long way to go as an actor, while John seems to have finally matured like fine wine and hit his stride (kinda like Arjun did with Rock On and Raajneeti). I really hope John gets more challenging roles and does as well with them as he did in New York. On your girl Kat, she did quite a good job in New York as well. I found her a little annoyingly bubbly in the beginning, but she displayed a lot of range in the more intense scenes after John's character was arrested. And I thought she was superb in the climax of the film.

belly rings said...

New york is directed by Karan Johar.It is good movie and music is so good.

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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.

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