Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Filmi Girl Reviews a Thank You Review

Here is a great example of how not to review a Bollywood film by the master of bad Bollywood reviewing: Rachel Saltz.

Rachel Saltz reviews Thank You.

The film in question is Anees Bazmee’s
Thank You, a broad comedy set in the non-resident Indian (NRI) community of Vancouver, Canada. For those Western film buffs unfamiliar with the man, Anees Bazmee’s signature style is probably best thought of as a Bollywood Blake Edwards with a bit more heart. He loves broads, party scenes, great visual gags, and films packed with the sense of getting something past the Censor Board. In other words, Anees Bazmee is not everybody’s cup of tea and he’s certainly not involved in the business of making Oscar bait films. (Thank You even opens with a fun animated sequence, much like the Pink Panther films did.)

And here begins Rachel Saltz:

You can’t step into the same river twice, but you can, it seems, watch the same Bollywood movie twice (or three or four times). Thank You, an Anees Bazmee comedy dedicated to the proposition that all men are dogs, hews so closely to tried-and-true formula that it could serve as a kind of template.

Really? I would like to know what films she has been watching because
Thank You actually breaks with several of Bollywood's standard practices. Not only does most of the sympathy in the script lie on the side of the women, unlike most of these “doggie” comedies, but the most surprising thing: Akshay Kumar, the hero, and Sonam Kapoor, the heroine, are not paired opposite each other in the film. So, template? Let’s see what she has to say.

First, pick a clean Western city (be gone, heat and dust of India!) and shoot it to emphasize its sleek high-rises, huge homes and pretty views. Here Vancouver does the honors.

Wait, what? Canada-set
Thank You was far more geared to the masses who love Bollywood then internationally-minded but Mumbai-set Dhobi Ghat. Are Indian films not allowed to be set in Vancouver because it makes them “inauthentic” somehow?

And now, let’s look at the word clean.
Thank You wasn’t just set in the West but a clean Western city. Rachel Saltz, an American, has no excuse for not knowing the loaded nature of the word clean when dealing with people of color (pardon the clunky phrasing.) When now Vice-President Biden called now President Obama “clean” during the 2008 election, the media had a field day. For a racially-sensitive culture like ours, “clean” implies that it’s somehow noteworthy that the person in question isn’t dirty. (Not just actual dirt but the stink of life near the street, too.) When Rachel Saltz draws attention to the clean Western city, she’s implying that it’s noteworthy that there are Indians living in such tidy and safe conditions instead of in the dirt and dust of what she imagines is “normal” Indian life on the musky subcontinent.

Not only that, let’s take a look at the “template” Anees Bazmee is supposed to be following with a look at where his last few films were set:

No Problem (2010) - Durban, South Africa
Singh is Kinng (2008) - the Punjab, India; Cairo, Egypt; and Sydney Australia
Welcome (2007) - Dubai, United Arab Emirites; South Africa; Mumbai, India
No Entry (2005) - Bangkok, Thailand; Capetown, South Africa; Mauritius

Where are the
clean Western cities? Sydney for Singh is Kingg, fine, but a large swathes of that film took place in dirty Cairo and a Punjabi village, too. If Anees Bazmee is following a template, it certainly doesn't involve location - except for setting films where there are large non-resident Indian communities. Like Vancouver. (We see where I'm going with this, yes?)

Back to her next step:

Next, sign up some stars: Thank You not only has Akshay Kumar (with whom Mr. Bazmee had a megahit in Singh Is Kinng) but also (partial roster) Bobby Deol, Irrfan Khan and Sonam Kapoor.

Okay, Akshay and Sonam, yes, are a top hero and heroine but are Bobby Deol and Irrfan Khan really names that bring people into the theater? (Hint: the answer is no, as much as I enjoy them both.) And considering that 99% of Hindi language films relies on stars as marketing power it seems really ridiculous to point out that there are stars in
Thank You. OF COURSE there are stars in Thank You. There were stars in art film Dhobi Ghat; a star promoted art film Peepli Live; noting the presence of stars in the film is really stupid.

If she was conveying some information about the star system that non-Bollywood fans might find useful to understanding the film - like how the “friendly appearances” by Mallika Sherawat and Vidya Balan are part of a long tradition of the
filmi fraternity helping each other out, then I might see the relevance of pointing it out but that is not what she is doing here.

Ready for the the third step?

Now dress them in expensive-looking clothes.

Having seen the film, let me state for the record that clothes are no more “expensive-looking” than what one might see in the latest Jennifer Aniston romantic-comedy. See above for my discussion on
clean and then substitute expensive-looking in. It’s not like Sonam Kapoor was wandering around with a diamond tiara... Sonam is a fashionista, of course she is going to look stylish. And Twinkle Khanna, Akshay’s wife, always makes sure he is well-dressed. Again, by singling out their expensive clothes, Rachel Saltz signals that the proper attire for actors in an Indian film is cheap and “ethnic.”

You’ll also want a mod credit sequence with dancing and animation...

Okay, point one, mod credit sequences are awesome and point two, not enough films do them. Animation is something new to Bollywood film but mod credits like the ones opening
Karz (1980) are a staple of the industry and not part of whatever “doggie-comedy” template that she’s building here.

...and of course a plot full of schemes and counter-schemes. This one involves three philandering husbands who get caught by their wives with the help of Mr. Kumar’s Kishan, a flute-playing detective always ready to help damsels in distress. He lives, not incidentally, in a gorgeous penthouse with wraparound windows that look out over sailboat-studded waters.

Ah, the first sign that she was watching the film instead of taking interior design and costuming notes. But I have to ask why Kishan’s penthouse was noteworthy and not the hilarious comedic performance of Rimi Sen? Or, if you are inclined to dislike “doggie” comedies, which is a completely reasonable preference - why was Kishan’s penthouse noteworthy and not the casual treatment of infidelity?

Why is her entire review a list of things that make
Thank You different from the Bengali arthouse film that she clearly knew she was not going to be seeing? Why do I get the impression that Rachel Saltz spent the entire film reading a Monica Ali novel on her iPad and only occasionally glanced up to roll her eyes at the lack of "authenticity?" Why is she reviewing (and I use the term lightly) Thank You at all if her review is targeted neither at the Indian community in the US, who clearly already live in clean cities and would find a film set in Vancouver noteworthy, nor at the curious non-Indian viewer who could gain nothing of value from her "template?"


Will she redeem herself in the final paragraph?

Thank You does have a few distinguishing features. One is Mr. Khan, who plays an imperious jerk with deadpan élan. Mr. Kumar has his moments too. In a dance number on a cruise ship, he treats a line of bathing beauties on lounge chairs like a series of high hurdles. It’s a moment of goofy joy. This film needs more of them.

No. No, she does not. Not one word to spare for the music, the picturizations, the plot of the film, the acting - I suspect that the reason Mr. Irrfan Khan stood out to Ms. Saltz with his [Filmi Girl vomits at the thought of typing this ridiculously New York Times Style Section word]
élan is that she knew who he was from his Hollywood films.

Look, I’m not saying that she had to give
Thank You a glowing review - she is free to hate the film all she wants and to write about it. However, listing some random and irrelevant things about the setting and style of the film do not make a review. They make her a hack - a lazy hack who is disdainful of the fact that an Indian film was set in Vancouver and had actors in expensive clothes. Because obviously that’s not what REAL Indians are like.

Well, memo to Rachel Saltz: Indians can wear nice clothes and live in Vancouver. Bollywood films have stars in them. And never use the word
élan ever again.

I know I've said this before but beloved film critic
Roger Ebert has a theory on reviewing that says a critic should review film based on what the film is - not what you want it to be. So, in other words, do not review a mainstream, escapist Bollywood comedy as if you were supposed to be watching something from The Apu Trilogy because it just wastes everybody's time.

(You can read my review of the film


Danny Bowes said...

*applause* Nicely done. Especially like the Ebert shout-out toward the end; I knew I'd stolen that ethos from someone!

wv: "skewa" - basically what you did to Saltz in this post. :D

Shell said...

Should you accidentally run into Rachal Saltz in a back alley, I may actually fear for her life!


Filmi Girl said...

Thanks, guys!

I just get so fed up with Western reviewers - esp. Das Saltz - reviewing mainstream Bollywood flicks as if they were supposed to be high art.

Lime(tte) said...

THUMBS. UP. !!!!!

lady said...

I love reading your blog. I think you do a nice job in your reviews. This critique of Rachel Saltz was really well done! I hope you send this to her!

And yes I am one of those Indians who wear nice clothes and live in Vancouver. In fact, I was on the sets for some of the scenes in this film and got to see Akshay up close! He is truly adorable!!

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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