Friday, December 09, 2005

Kuch Naa Kaho (Bollywood movie review)

I  Bollywood thoughts

Thanks to Netflix, Kuch Naa Kaho (2003) with Aishawyara Rai and  Abhishek Bachchan was my latest venture into Bollywood.  I had gotten into Bollywood a couple years ago via the Seven Samurai does cricket movie Lagaan and then had wandered into Rai’s reprisals of Jane Austen does Passage to India in Kandukonden Kandukonden (I Have Found It) a take on Sense and Sensibility and Bride and Prejudice (actually Bride is more or less Pan-Indian Bollywood in that Gurinder Chadha's movies are as British as they are Indian), but my local video store’s Indian film selection was always very limited.  I got so desperate that I even tried Jiri Mistry and Heather Graham in the Guru. Last month, the local video store, one of the last small chains going, went bankrupt and closed its doors suddenly.

Ever since my local video store paid the ultimate late fee,I’ve been thinking about writing a “haunted” video store script that does a play on the movie the Ring crossed wirh the Nutcracker Suite, where movies and clues appear on the still playing tv monitors above the checkout counter (well if you ever wondered why I don’t get published conventionally, there’s your answer :}).  Anyway, brick and mortar video stores were so 80’s –90’s, we took the closure as our signal to slip into home entertainment 21st century style with Netflix.  You know you’re really old when the old days and ways includes institutions that didn’t exist until you yourself were an adult.  Worse yet, a couple weeks ago I had a nostalgic conversation with a friend about the virtues of daisy wheel printers back in the 80’s.  The good news for me was that Netflix has lots more Bollywood movies than my haunted video store ever did.  

In general, my wife and I have been on a South Asian spree.  In addition to watching Bollywood our food tastes have migrated from Vietnamese and Thai to Indian to the point of our noticing the differences between Himalayan, Tandoori, Pakistani, restaurants.  I’ve also been calling tech support lines a lot lately. In any case, I think of Bollywood as something of a biryani approach to making movies.  
>Biryani is a fried rice dish that’s apparently Indian by way of Persia and Africa  (we Chinese sometimes talk about Overseas Chinese customs and cuisine with chop suey and fortune cookies among other things not being Chinese at all, the South Asian equivalent is called Pan Indian) which combines disparate elements like raisins, almonds, curries, onions, yogurt, and various unexpected spices.  A really good biryani is colorful, sweet, savory, crunchy, salty, hot, all at various times. A really good Bollywood movie is parts song and dance, comedy, melodrama, and culture class exploration mixed together in less than seamless fashion but always in bright color.  If you’re into purity of form,  and economy of statement, Bollywood is not for you.  At its best, it’s artistically un-self-conscious movie making which may account for it being full of energy, emotion, and often having more to say socially and politically than its American popcorn movie counterparts.  

I've said elsewhere
that Bollywood has likely carried on the spirit of the old Hollywood movie musical more faithfully than Hollywood has.  While much of the international “art” cinema that made its way to US video stores eschews the glossiness of the Hollywood formula, Bollywood embraces it.  Bollywood movie stars look like movie stars.  In fact, Julia Roberts called Rai, “the most beautiful actress in the world”.  Rai, the former Miss World has “it” with an appeal that crosses Roberts’s vulnerability with Angelina Jolie’s intensity.  Rai, however, is probably more striking than either of her Hollywood counterparts.  

The movies can be formulaic.  The stories skew to wealthier more physically attractive individuals than we see in ordinary life just like mainstream Hollywood.  Bollywood also retains the sentimentality of fifties movie making.   They call to mind Douglas Sirk, the German born melodrama maker from the fifties (All That Heaven Allows which was homaged by Todd Haynes in Far from Heaven and Imitation of Life) in the way they take soap opera form but often touch on social issues.  Only Bollywood also  grafts the movie musical onto the template.    

II Kuch Naa Ko Discussion

Kuch Naa Koo, thus, starts out squarely as fifties Doris Day style Manhattan-based comedy with peekaboo shower curtain in brightly-colored bathroom as credits roll across different bath accessories.  In fact Kuch Naa Koo literally does start in Manhattan with the characters bouncing in and out of their native language and English.  Pan Indian culture consistently appears as an element of Bollywood movies which are themselves a product of India’s exposure to American Technicolor movies. Bollywood often serves to remind its audience that Indian identity transcends actually living on the subcontinent in much the same way being Chinese or Jewish travels from country to country across generations.

  To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of films like Kuch Naa Ko is the way Bollywood carries a stuck in fifties Hollywood feel.  I suspect this is partly due to the match between relatively more conservative Hindu sexual mores and the Hays Code fifties Hollywood.  Rai, for instance, has never done a western style kiss onscreen, so the Doris Day eternal virgin themes mesh well with Bollywood.  The American scenes serve as set up for another favorite Bollywood theme, the place of traditional arranged marriage in Global Economy India and with Pan Indians.

Abhishek Bachchan does the Rock Hudson confirmed but questioning bachelor turn here as he jousts with his Doctor mother in their Manhattan coop over takeout Italian food and avoiding a matchmaking obsessed uncle in Mumbai.  Bachchan like Rai is a strong screen presence but I would say that neither has great comic timing nor is there a clear chemistry between the two when the movie starts out in 50’s comedy meet cute mode.  One of the challenges in these kind of movies is that the lead has to establish that he’s vapid, insensitive, opportunistic while still getting across that there’s more there so the female lead can ultimately fall in love with him.  Either the script or Bachchan doesn’t quite pull that off in  the first section of the film.  The result is the feel of over imitative romantic comedy, like the Mexican film Inspiracion.  

Once Batchchan, who looks a bit like Jeff Goldblum,  settles into Mumbai though, the film changes shape.  The shallow matchmaking between Rai’s grudging “gotta do it for the promotion” go between and Batchchan’s
Idiot prankster bachelor eventually gives way to a more engaging melodrama.  Predictably enough, he falls for Rai, but it turns out that she has a “secret”.  

In between production numbers, Batchachan goes from romantic comedy lead to man of substance and heart.  Had this not been Bollywood, I’d be all over the jump shift, but continuity is not really the point in Bollywood.  After all, this is a genre where the dialogue stops and two dozen dancers appear, in this movie it’s always a phalanx of males trading fours with a phalanx of females.  Typically, there will be three or four costume changes in the midst of a five minute dance number and almost as many set changes.  At the close of the number, the characters will just drop back in scene as if we just changed channels momentarily for Indian MTV.  

Similarly, a lot of the scenes are highly mannered and some of the characters stereotyped.  For instance, a very funny Punjabi couple. Yusuf Hussain  and Raja Choudhary  very ably appear from time to time to provide comic relief and reinforce the idea that the two leads are meant for one another.  A lot of critics complain that Rai herself is a bit too stiff as an actress, but her acting catches the plot’s tension between traditional India and internet India, reinforced by multiple scenes of her sending e-mail on her laptop,  Raj plays a thoroughly modern woman, a single mother with a career, who still has traditional values and her slight stiffness strengthens the sense that she is literally torn between the emerging culture and the old one.

I confess to not knowing Indian culture well enough to tell whether the melodrama of “wifely” duty in the plot reflects any real tensions in Modern Indian society.  As a clueless, American, it brought to mind the old Hindu custom of the widow being considered so inseparable from her husband that she would be expected to jump on the funeral pyre to join him in the afterlife.  Kuch Na Kaho  argued for both second love and romantic love even in a matchmaking culture.  I don’t know how much of it is a settled matter in real India, but the result is an interesting take on Hindi feminism.  The movie climaxes with Rai getting to make a dramatic speech in front of all the elders who btw turn out not to be so traditional (the mother and uncle in particular) When this texture of the Bollywood biryani emerges, the movie has an energy and tension that calls to mind the best of Douglas Sirk.  

The end result is a great and full meal though some of the textures and tastes work better than others.  In particular, I was a bit disappointed with the dance numbers which weren’t as visually inventive or as genre bending as the best of Bollywood.  At times, Rohan Sippy’s direction feels barely coherent even by Bollywood standards,.  Still, Kuch Na Kaho remains surprisingly compelling and watchable.  If you are willing to sit for a three hour movie and want to start with a Bollywood movie that’s accessible to American newcomers to the genre, this wouldn’t be at all a bad place to start.  


At 12/09/2005 01:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems rather like the UsofA Inc War Mongerers expect us all to leap onto the funeral pyre with them?

At 12/09/2005 02:58:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Off your subject, but related: that pic you posted makes my mouth water! :-)

At 12/09/2005 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It's not off subject at all. It's a picture of a biryani which the post suggests is the food equivalent of Bollywood movies.
and yes, it made me sort of hungry.


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