Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A little of what I have been watching lately

A.K.A. The Loaf-centric Battle of the Khans: Part I

Having only watched some older films, with the help of a coworker I have started watching some newer Bollywood films... particularly those by arguably the two biggest actors in the industry today... Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan. As I really like to keep my reviews here on more obscure films generally, I thought I would give some mini, rapid fire reviews for some Khan flicks (all 15 years old or less) here to start things off.

My interest in these two actors in particular kind of stems first from the film 3 Idiots, which premiered around Christmas and became a huge, huge hit. People at my theater were lined up, the ticket prices were higher than ever in India, and the film quickly became the highest grossing Bollywood film ever. 3 Idiots is an Aamir Khan film, released from his own production company, and it beat out Aamir Khan's earlier film Ghajini for the highest grossing of all time.

Rounding out the top 4 of the unadjusted for inflation top grossing list are two Shahrukh Khan films... Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Couple Made By God) and Om Shanti Om.

A couple more that I think contrast the two actors nicely are Aamir Khan's Taare Zameen Par and Shahrukh Khan's latest My Name Is Khan.

As not to have things get overlong, in this post I will discuss Aamir's films, and Shahrukh's in the next.

3 Idiots (2009)
Two friends embark on a quest for a lost buddy. On this journey, they encounter a long forgotten bet, a wedding they must crash, and a funeral that goes impossibly out of control. As they make their way through the perilous landscape, another journey begins: their inner journey through memory lane and the story of their friend--the irrepressible free-thinker Rancho, who in his unique way, touched and changed their lives.

I hope I can give a completely fair review to 3 Idiots, as it has been some time since seeing it (just after the New Year), and it was honestly my first real foray into current Bollywood cinema.

3 Idiots is one of those sentimental, positive-messaged stories that may not appeal to everyone, but for a sap like me it really hit home. I don't want it to sound already like a sappy movie, because it is not, but you aren't getting anything hard nosed here at all.

I already love college style buddy stories... probably a holdover from the 80s movies I grew up on, and this movie does it quite well. What I have discovered in Bollywood films now is that they tend to cram many, many issues and messages into the story, unfortunately getting bogged down in the process. While having a positive message of being yourself and bucking convention if needed to really make a difference, 3 Idiots does not stretch itself into other areas. As a result, it stays focused (weird to say for a film approaching 3-hours long) on the task at hand, not getting watered down in too much fluff.

Not to say that it does not get watered down in other areas. when you have a dramedy that is over two and a half hours long, you're bound to have some moments that feel like filler, particularly to an American audience. While I am having trouble remembering specifics at the moment, I do remember a handful of times hearing that familiar voice in my head "OK... come on already." There is a scene I remember involving a birth during a flood (yes, I know...) that went on a bit long.

Also, and it may be a difference in cultures, but some jokes in the film fell completely flat with me. These are jokes that had the mostly Indian audience I watched the film with laughing loudly.

All in all though, this film felt right up my alley and honestly sparked my interest in current Hindi cinema... Aamir han in particular. He was just very charismatic and magnetic to me here, and I was very surprised to find out he is 45 years old! If you like a lighter film with a positive message (and can handle the extended runtime) you should enjoy 3 Idiots.

Honestly, it is strange to me that a film like this couple become the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, but after reading up a little on it, it made more sense. For one, Aamir Khan is apparently a marketing machine. He's already certainly a recognizable face worldwide with some talent to back it up. Couple this with the highest ticket prices ever for such a film (especially in India), and perhaps some negative (which becomes positive) attention from an author claiming he was under-credited for the story, and you have lines of people coming to see it. (Read about that controversy here.)

Regardless, it's a solid film that I would see again. I've enjoyed other Bollywood films more, but the positives here far outweigh the negatives.

Score: 7.75 / 10

Ghajini (2008)
Sanjay Singhania is a rich tycoon suffering from short term memory loss due to being hit by a metal pole when trying to intervene on his girlfriend's murder. Because of the severe injury on his head, his memory can only last for fifteen minutes and he doesn't remember events or incidents that have happened before in his life. Now he must tattoo messages on his body, take Polaroid photos instead of forming memories, and leave notes everywhere, always to remind himself to track down the last name he heard whispered in his ear.

Yes, it's Memento.

This was one of those times when you go into a film perhaps expecting too much, and it kind of feels like a let down. Before Ghajini, I had watched several Aamir Khan films in rapid succession including Raja Hindustani, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, and Taare Zameen Par (and heard about the apparently incredible Lagaan), all of which I really enjoyed Khan's performances in.

I suppose I should have gone in with more trepidation as this is essentially a remake of Christopher Nolan's Memento, a film which a fucking adore, but I was sick and it was the middle of the night when I started it, so maybe my brain just wasn't ready to be its normal jaded self.

Certainly a movie made for the masses, and perhaps one more like an American film than any other Hindi film I have seen so far, Ghajini for me by the end felt too contrived and formulaic to fully enjoy it. Maybe it was because it felt so American at times that it fell flatter for me than I hoped.

Khan was pretty good here, especially in his animalistic, short-memory persona. He was also entertaining in the flashback scenes, but more in his charming way there. There were a few times when he would snarl loudly that had me rolling my mind's eye, but all in all it was a dynamic performance. He was fucking ripped, and played quite the badass. His leaping across a room to throttle a man in his home, legs around the man's torso, beating his face was pretty sweet, I have to say. Flashback Sanjay though needed to lose his goddamn short sleeve dress shirts! Come on Aamir, I know you want to show off those guns, but really...

There are some cool action sequences and chases, and the villain of Ghajini is pretty nasty considering this is a Bollywood film which tend to be tamer I would say.

My problems with the film though outweigh some cool action and a vile Ghajini. For one, and probably the biggest, the way memory loss is handled was far too convenient, as if an internal timer in Sanjay's head just hit the reset button every 15 minutes. It's much more challenging to create a character who constantly forms memory after memory that each last for 15 minutes as opposed to a man that is essentially normal for 15 minutes then just forgets EVERYTHING from the previous 15 minutes all at once.

Also, the addition of a "helper" (a medical student who has an interest in Sanjay's case and gets personally involved) felt really tacked on. I would liked to have seen Sanjay performing entirely as a one man show instead of having an outsider helping to guide things along.

While the romance part of the story was expected, the fact that it felt like a completely unrelated story didn't work so well for me. Far too much time was spent on Sanjay's and Kalpana's past, with a silly mistaken identity (a Bollywood convention it seems) storyline that could have been definitely trimmed. I didn't like that this lighthearted side of the film competed with the darker present that had potential. Maybe that is the American filmgoer in me.

Oh, and I am certainly a fan of the music in these films, but Ghajini is an exception. Ugh I really did not like the songs OR the production/performance of them in here. Top 40-garbage honestly. Maybe that works for a certain crowd, but I have really grown to like the distinct Indian sound that many of these songs provide. Put some shit I can hear on boring radio here, and I want to leap on the fast-forward button.

All in all, Ghajini wasn't terrible, but it wasn't all that great for me either. Better than a lot of Bollywood action, but it's all glitz and not enough substance. Stick with the vastly superior Memento.

Score: 5.75  / 10

Taare Zameen Par (2007) [Like Stars on Earth]
Ishaan Awasthi is an eight-year-old whose world is filled with wonders that no one else seems to appreciate. He just cannot seem to get anything right in class. When he gets into far more trouble than his parents can handle, he is packed off to a boarding school to 'be disciplined'. Things are no different at his new school, and Ishaan has to contend with the added trauma of separation from his family. One day a new art teacher bursts onto the scene, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, who infects the students with joy and optimism. He breaks all the rules of 'how things are done' by asking them to think, dream and imagine, and all the children respond with enthusiasm, all except Ishaan. Nikumbh soon realizes that Ishaan is very unhappy, and he sets out to discover why. With time, patience and care, Nikumbh begins the process of helping Ishaan find himself.

OK, I'm getting way too fucking long here, so let's try to actually keep this succinct! Jesus!

Again, this is one of those films that is toeing the line of over-sentimentality, but it must have caught me at the right time. The story really isn't all that unique... I mean, we've all seen Dead Poets Society, right?

That's not completely fair to Taare Zameen Par, as this deals with a single child with a learning disability that a teacher takes under his wing, but the inspirational teacher story regardless of the student has been done quite a bit. That said, though, I am a sucker for them every time!

Aamir Khan makes his directorial debut here, and I thought did a good job despite the length. I really liked Khan in this film, even though I can't really sit here and point out particular scenes that stood out for me. The man has that magical ability to become watery eyed at the drop of a hat, so that works to his advantage certainly. It was touching to see a child who had frustrated so many people be given the chances he was by a sympathetic teacher, especially in a far more strict environment like a boarding school.

At its heart, Taare Zameen Par seems to be not only reminding folks to take every child's situation into account and remember that they can all be very special in their own ways, but at the same time critiquing the Indian boarding school society - sending your children away to be whipped into shape in a sense. The message of the film gets a little heavy-handed, but honestly this comes with the Bollywood territory. Take that for what it is, something that Indian audiences seem to respond well too now, and you can enjoy a film like this on that level.

This film gets sappy, but it was fine with me. I liked the art teacher angle, as I can relate having a strong art background of my own. Films about art often make me want to pick up my own supplies and work out something myself, and I like the message that art can be an equal ground and a way for people with different ways of communicating to put themselves out there.

Anyway, this is worth seeing. Well acted and well written. The music isn't bad from what I remember, but not overly memorable. It's long, but what Bollywood film isn't really?

Score: 8 / 10

What I have grown to appreciate about Aamir Khan's films, particularly those of the past decade, is that he seems to go against Bollywood conventions in many ways with his characters. He shows certain flaws or has a certain twist on them that you don't see a lot of the time.

He has become very interesting to me in that he seems to be a bit of an outsider despite being so popular with audiences. He does not attend Indian film award as he feels they lack credibility, but keeps a blog where he communicates with fans. Famous yes, but keeps it real I guess and has a world view that I appreciate in an entertainer. Khan's first interest is in the process that is filmmaking before the final product, which just makes him stand out with many movie stars.

His current project, Peepli Live, of which he is the producer, is a satirical look at the suicide of an Indian farmer.

Well, that's my little Aaamir story. There's a lot more that could be said, and probably a lot better than I have said it, but what can you do?

Next up, some hopefully tighter little reviews of the Shakrukh Khan films I discussed above.

Khan Battle Part II coming soon!

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