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.