Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hiding Divya

I was 15 years old when I first saw American Desi. By the end of that school year, I could quote the entire movie, and had developed a major taste for all-male Hindi a capella ensembles. Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing young South Asian actors playing characters that were specifically catered to my age group and hearing jokes that it helped being Indian to understand, or the fact that it was one of my first glimpses into the lives of Indian kids growing up in America; whatever the reason, I’ll unashamedly declare that I thoroughly enjoyed the film—and from its surprising success both nationally and overseas, so too did many other expat South Asians.

But things went downhill fast. It was as if the dam suppressing the simmering emotions of second-generation immigrants had finally burst, releasing an overkill of low-budget features that attempted to combine their frustration, detachment, and confusion about their place in the world. Green Card Fever. ABCD. Legally Desi. American Chai. Where’s the Party Yaar?* Each one more ridiculous than the previous, Indian American films quickly went from entertaining representations of the diasporic experience to precisely the stereotypical disasters they were trying to avoid becoming.

So I’ll be honest—when I attended the premiere of debutante director Rehana Mirza’s Hiding Divya last Tuesday, I was in “been-there-done-that mode,” anticipating the usual, underwhelming 90 minutes of a post-adolescent Indian American tragically plagued with an identity crisis.

I’m happy to admit that I was wrong. Hiding Divya mercifully steps away from being just another run-of-the-mill RomCom about South Asians struggling to reconcile traditional and modern values; lead actress Madhur Jaffrey put it well in this conversation with AVS: “they were the right films to make at that time, of the first Indians coming, growing up here…but I think here, we are going a little further.”

The film begins with Linny (an impressive—albeit occasionally melodramatic--Pooja Kumar), a young woman who has just learned of the death of her beloved surrogate father. She must now return with her teenage daughter, Jia (Madelaine Massey, in an understated yet powerful performance), to her estranged New Jersey hometown to care for her mother Divya (Jaffrey, who excels without overdoing it), whose bipolar disorder has long since been determinedly ignored by her family and concealed from their community. Glimpsing into the stories, relationships, and secrets of the three women, the film is a courageous first venture in broaching the devastating and far-reaching effects of mental illness—a subject that is often misunderstood and wrongly overlooked by South Asian society.

In fact, Mirza’s willingness to even tackle it is so encouraging that I wish she really went all the way with it. Instead, while the topic of bipolar disorder is definitely touched upon, it is not explored nearly as deeply as one would like. Mirza has insisted that the film is not about "letting audiences off the hook" when it comes to mental illness, yet that might have been just what she has ended up doing: making the taboo issue more palatable to the South Asian community by interjecting Divya’s story with less offending subplots such as the unrequited love between childhood friend Ravi (effortlessly played by Deep Katdare) and Linny. Though I appreciated the comic relief of those moments, conveying the severity of Divya’s condition would perhaps have been better achieved by a greater focus on the events leading to her downward spiral, or the parallels between her and Jia, whose fate threatens to follow that of her grandmother’s. Instead, hastily wrapped up with a few heated confrontations between the characters, and leaving little time left for a satisfying denouement, the impact of the film is slightly compromised.

That being said, the Hiding Divya remains a refreshing departure from most immature plotlines that other films of this genre have tended to stick to, and offers an enlightening learning experience as a bonus. Indeed, at the Q&A following the premiere screening, Rehana mentioned her desire to pitch the film to educational institutions as part of the effort to inform young adults of the emotional toll that families afflicted with such conditions experience; I hope she is able to follow through on that goal so as to add even greater value to an already commendable endeavor.

As a supporter of independent South Asian cinema** and an even greater proponent of projects with a social function, I wish this film all the best as it celebrates its long awaited, and much-deserved, theatrical release.

* Cringe. I couldn’t even bring myself to see that last one.
**Really I am, despite my aversion to Where’s the Party Yaar?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Just like its not-so-unique title*, the plot of Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai is not anything we haven’t seen before: a gangster film. Inspired by real-life events, the film’s plot unfolds through the eyes of police officer, Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda), whose failed attempts at thwarting the rise of the city’s underworld continue to gnaw at him 18 years later. He tells the story of Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan), a smuggler whose longtime black activities on sea routes, undying allegiance to the poor, and shrewd strategizing among his peers once earned him the reputation of the most influential and untouchable gangster around—until he took in young and ambitious newbie Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) as part of his crew; with larger-than-life dreams and no moral compass to speak of, Shoaib’s desire to rule the entire city soon surpassed his loyalty to Sultan, threatening not only their relationship, but the entire dynamic of power in Mumbai.

Director Milan Luthria’s film has opened to mostly rave reviews that tout it as part of producer Ekta Kapoor’s triumphant comeback to Bollywood, so perhaps those of us who came away underwhelmed are missing something? Not that it’s some kind of unwatchable nightmare, but I wouldn’t go around enthusiastically espousing it to everyone I meet, either. Instead, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai lands firmly in middle ground—numerous aspects could have made it great, but eventually don't deliver to the fullest, producing a film that is just—there’s no other word for it—“meh".

For instance, Rajat Arora’s dialogue has its moments of ingenuity, especially during the blossoming romance between Sultan and his arm-toy Rehana (Kangana Raunat), but after about halfway into the film, slips into “over the top” territory—think a lot of characters entering rooms and delivering melodramatic one-liners with all the macho energy as they can muster before turning on their heels and making their exit with equal gusto. Music director Pritam puts together a number of mellow, melodious numbers; yet they are quickly forgotten due to a throbbing background score which, though apt for the genre, was used so repetitively that it ended up featuring in my dream last night.

As far as cast is concerned, Ajay Devgan is the only one who truly soars in yet another effortlessly convincing performance as head honcho Sultan; Hooda as Agnel and Emraan Hashmi as Shoaib are just adequate in their roles as the dejected police officer and aspiring don, respectively. And as gangster films typically leave little room for substantial female characters, Kangana and Prachi Desai predictably have little to do in roles that were probably only created to provide that all-important eye candy.

The film can take pride in its recreation of a decade that many younger audiences are unfamiliar with. Whether it is the nature of underworld operations or the culture and fashion inspired by Bollywood’s emerging “masala film” era, the set design, costumes, and general “look” of OUATIM provide an intriguing glimpse into 1970s Mumbai.

However, the film’s eventual downfall is its pace, which starts off steadily enough, but post-intermission seems to decelerate to a depressingly dragging tempo. The result: a product that is at least half an hour too long, filled with excessive drunken outbursts and unnecessary, incomplete side-plots.

Ultimately, Once Upon a Time…'s lengthiness and overall mediocrity hardly makes it the best tale ever told; for now, we’ll take comfort in the fact that it is just one of the inexhaustible, multitude of stories that Mumbai has to offer.

*Once Upon a Time in China. Once Upon a Time in America. Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once Upon a Time in the West. Apparently, all the cool kids have done it.

**No joke, there’s an angry little musical refrain that showed up every. two. minutes. Those of you who have seen the film already, you have got to know what I’m talking about.

Monday, July 19, 2010


At one point during Inception, you find yourself stuck with the other characters in a dream inside a dream, inside a dream, inside a dream. And there’s no guarantee that they (and thus, you) will find a way out, back into the “real world”—whatever that is. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story.

Expert dream thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has mastered the art of extracting material from the subconscious of his sleeping victims. However, when he is hired by successful industrialist Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), it isn’t to steal information, but to plant a self-destroying idea into the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to Saito’s arch business rival. Though challenging, the prospect is tempting—for Saito has also offered Cobb, on successful completion of the job, his only chance to return home to his children after being on the run due to accusations that he murdered his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard).

Painstaking preparation by a carefully-assembled team of a forger, chemist, and an architect result in spectacular creations of Fischer’s subconscious worlds. Yet, continually haunted by the memory of Mal and her ability to manipulate his mind, Cobb repeatedly risks sabotaging their meticulous plan; he must learn to navigate his own dreams and realities as the ghost of his elusive past threatens to destroy not only the operation at hand, but Cobb himself.*

Despite knowing next to nothing about special effects (and honestly, rarely caring about them) it would be blasphemous of me to recap Inception without mentioning some of its technological feats. With a zero-gravity, Matrix-like fight scene which has Joseph Gordon-Levitt running (floating?) down spinning hallways, a freight train hurtling down the middle of the street amidst speeding cars, and a sequence in which the entire city of Paris seems to be folding in on itself, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all. As the effects are part of the dream worlds that have been constructed by Cobb and his crew, Nolan has the license to make them as mind-blowing as he wishes. Yet he is careful not to exploit this allowance; rather than frivolous, self-indulgent spectacles, they are functions of their subconscious contexts, making it much easier for us to believe in them without scoffing at their improbability.

So much of this film focuses on explaining the logistical and temporal details of invading dreams and convincing us of the credibility of their endeavor, that the sheer complexity of the plot and devotion to special effects compromises character development. Usually for me, no amount of exploding sidewalks and snowy avalanches will compensate for lack of well-developed leading roles. Yet, here is one of those— rare— films that didn’t necessarily need to devote a great deal of time to fleshing out its principal characters to keep us invested**; as the only emotional relationship that really matters is that between Cobb and Mal, superfluous details about the backgrounds of the others may actually have been a hindrance rather than an enhancement to the film’s tempo.

This isn’t to say that the cast doesn’t deliver. The ensemble gathered here is as unique as the plot itself. Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page as Cobb’s right-hand man and principle architect, respectively, impressively move another step away from trapping themselves into careers in cutesy adolescent dramas. Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be playing the same “intense” guy in his last few films. Luckily, it works here, but he is often overshadowed by Tom Hardy, whose mischievous take on his character of the forger Eames offers refreshing moments of comic relief. The scene stealer, however, is Marion Cotillard. With a role that seems small carries the fate of the entire film, her portrayal of Mal elevates Inception even higher, from being not just an extraordinary sci-fi, but a stirring love story and psychological drama as well.

I’d like to think that I have a slightly-larger-than-pea-sized intellect. But I’m not going to lie: at some points, it’s easy to go rather cross-eyed trying to understand the multiple labyrinths of subconsciousness that Chris Nolan keeps weaving us in and out of. It’s easy to feel him deftly, almost gleefully loosening the screws inside your head as you struggle to retain grasp of what is real and what isn’t. It’s easy to feel an uncontrollable desire to stand up in the middle of it all and scream for a time-out just to catch yourself up on what the heck is going on.

But that may be just what Nolan is going for: to shake our illusion that we are in control, and perhaps to make us come away from the film questioning our own dreams and realities, wondering to what extent our lives are dictated by our memories and how ready we are to confront the layers of our subconscious that we have previously shied away from.

I’m sure that, upon numerous viewings of the film, people will find all sorts of loopholes and logical imperfections to debunk its unnerving effect. But for the time being, I highly recommend this film for its compelling performances, awe-inspiring visuals, and an ending that is at once exasperating and absolutely perfect. No matter how you may feel about its technicalities, you will most likely walk out of the theater wanting to watch Inception again.

*I just read that synopsis through again and I’ve really done no justice to the story. I apologize. If you want to know how it really went, you just need to watch the movie. Probably twice.

**Or I could just have been too busy grappling with the plot to scrutinize characterization.

Friday, June 18, 2010


As if we didn’t already have enough Ramayan adaptations in the world, Mani Ratnam decides to join in on the fun. Raavan, as the title unashamedly gives away, is the acclaimed director’s take on the epic, with a few plot and character twists thrown in—you know, to be “different” and all.

Known for thwarting power in favor of the poverty-stricken, tribal leader Beera Munda (Abhishek Bachchan) is revered by villagers yet resented by local authorities. Consistently evading capture and arrest, he has gradually grown to unofficially rule the small town of Lal Maati.

Enter Dev Pratap Sharma (Vikram), an accomplished and highly-respected inspector, called upon to rid Lal Maati of the roguish likes of Beera once and for all. With a few strategic attacks on Beera’s world, Dev is at his commanding best—until he learns that his own wife, Ragini (Aishwariya Rai), is the kidnapped victim of Beera’s revenge.

Led by the goofy-but-wise forest guard Sanjeevani* (Govinda—a casting choice I can only explain as a weak effort to simultaneously fulfill the need for a “Hanuman” as well as some comic relief), Dev and his band of trusty colleagues set forth into Beera’s jungle to rescue Ragini. Meanwhile, as Ragini increasingly interacts with her captor and learns of her husband’s hand in his painful past, sides of him emerge that contradict his image as a demonic villain.

I can see where Ratnam might have been going with this. Beera has been endowed with Robin Hood-like qualities and a rather tragic backstory, while it is occasionally the supposedly-heroic Dev whose intentions appear morally questionable. In so doing, Ratnam allows each of them a realistic and relatable, rather than symbolic, function. While this certainly makes for greater character dimensionality, it remains to be seen whether Indian audiences will buy these more sensitized depictions—will they accept such loose interpretations of religious figures, or resent them, arguing that because Ram and Raavan’s mere existence is to signify the battle between virtue and evil, to humanize them would defeat their purpose? Perhaps if the film hadn’t been so blatantly touted as a modern-day Ramayan, and therefore hadn’t weighed itself down with the pressure of adhering to the tropes of the original, the blurring of the lines and somewhat unresolved ending would have worked more favorably.

As for the acting, lackluster performances abound. You already know how I feel about Govinda. The others aren’t much better. Abhishek often appears to be channeling his inner Joker with manic grins and fits of psychotic rage; yet where he truly shines is during Beera’s rare betrayals of vulnerability. Aishwarya has little to do besides emit the occasional shrill shriek and feature in an oddly placed, if not completely unnecessary, song and dance number. It is entirely possible that this production was probably an excuse to get the Bachchans onscreen together again because let’s face it, they’re an unavoidable package deal now.

At 138 minutes, the film is simply too long, especially when one considers that a good half hour could have been saved just by eliminating the excessive shots of Ash peering through dew-laced lashes at her surroundings in slow motion. If you must go, go for music—the score’s unique syncopations and catchy rhythms ooze classic A.R Rahman—and stay for the cinematography. Save for the aforementioned slo-mos, Santosh Sivan puts forth a visually stunning display that not only showcases his mastery of his craft, but justifies watching the film on a big screen, assuring us that despite our misgivings about any narrative gray areas, Raavan is unmistakably a true beauty to watch.

*That's right, Sanjeevani. Yeah, me either.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coming to America

Coming to America starts off like a National Geographic special: as the opening credits roll, the camera glides through vistas of palm trees, lush forests, and thriving wildlife before coming to rest on a palace that, with its blue turrets and sprawling lawn, seems to have been ripped out of the pages of a Disney fairy tale. Yet in this fictional African land of Zamunda, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), is disgruntled with his privileged life and the prospect of an arranged marriage. With the companionship of his sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall), he decides to travel to Queens, New York to find a wife who will love him, not his status as future King.

The story, admittedly, is not anything we haven’t seen before; the rich boy, poor girl formula has been used all too often. However, it’s easy to forgive the unoriginality, as romantic comedy is rarely a genre that allows for groundbreaking novelty anyway. What is new is Eddie Murphy’s performance, markedly more subtle than his past outrageousness in Beverly Hills Cop or on Saturday Night Live. Here, he barely uses profane language or rowdy behavior; well-spoken and courteous, he’s the perfect gentleman, whether it's calmly standing up to the robber who holds up McDowell’s or stopping on the street to give money to homeless men. Actually, the film might even be read as a metaphor for his career—just as Prince Akeem yearns to break away from his life in Zamunda, so too does Murphy want to separate himself from previous roles as the rough, gangster-type. Being Akeem is a chance for him to assert both his broader range as an actor as well as his refusal to comply with the narrow parameters for African American characters in Hollywood.

Even more striking is the fact that this is one of the few times that a film revolved around the love story between two positive black characters (remember, we’re talking about the 1980s here!). The childlike enthusiasm with which Akeem introduces himself to Lisa (Shari Headley), dancing in the restaurant during their first date—their relationship is sweet and genuine. Particularly heartfelt is their conversation about love and marriage after Lisa refuses to marry her despicable boyfriend, Darryl (Eriq LaSalle)*. The interaction between them makes it easy for us to see them as a “normal” couple—as opposed to alternatives offered at the time—and therefore root for their relationship to succeed.

While the romance may be charming, and while Eddie Murphy may be unusually tame as the innocent and well-mannered prince, almost everything else about the film is far from subdued. As the opening credits described above suggest, we seem to be alerted from the beginning that what we are about to watch is unashamedly tongue-in-cheek. A satirical undertone is present almost throughout, from the exaggeratedly long dining table at which Akeem and his parents sit on opposite ends and the exotic African animals randomly running across the frame, to the curse-filled shouts of angry New Yorkers and the not-so-subtle spoof on McDonald’s. Additionally, Murphy and Hall indulge in their specialty of embodying multiple roles, particularly as the various kooky employees of the local barber shop. As entertaining as they are, most of these elements contribute little to the narrative: the barbers don’t do much for the progression of the plot, and neither, for instance, do Hall’s over-the-top antics as the rowdy Reverend Brown. Consequently, it often feels like the entire film is an extension of Murphy’s stand-up routines, fragmented into short sketches that don’t necessarily have any purpose besides comic effect.

So while Coming to America, as a different depiction of African Americans in cinema, may have had the potential to make more of a social impact, perhaps the disjointed and sometimes crude humor prevents it from being taken too seriously. However, it may be because of this mix of romance and comedy that the film has appealed to both fans of such humor as well as those seeking more of a love story. For all the contradicting opinions among critics and audiences about its political and social statements, we can’t deny that this movie is funny—and if nothing else, undoubtedly fulfills Murphy’s eternal goal of wanting to make people laugh.

*This is irrelevant, but am I the only one who still can't think of him as anyone but Dr. Benton on ER?